Critics have sometimes blamed the accreditation standards of the American Bar Association for driving up the cost of law school and making it more difficult for students of color to be admitted to those programs.
But a report released on Monday by the Government Accountability Office says that most law schools surveyed instead blamed competition for better rankings and a more hands-on approach to educating students for the increased price of a law degree. In addition, the federal watchdog agency reported that, over all, minorities are making up a larger share of law-school enrollments than in the past, although the percentage of African-American students in those programs is shrinking. The GAO attributed that decrease to lower undergraduate grade-point averages and scores on law-school admissions tests.
Law-school accreditation is technically voluntary but practically important: 19 states now require candidates to have a degree from an institution approved by the bar association to be eligible to take the bar examination. And a degree from an ABA-accredited institution makes a student eligible to take the bar exam in any state.
The costs of getting a law degree, however, have increased at a faster rate than the costs of comparable professional programs, says the report, "Higher Education: Issues Related to Law School Cost and Access." In-state tuition and fees at public law schools averaged $14,461 in the 2007-8 academic year, 7.2 percent higher than the cost 12 years earlier. In comparison, the cost of a medical degree from a public institution increased 5.3 percent over the same period, to $22,048 annually.
Law-school costs for nonresidents and at private institutions also increased at a slower rate over that period, but now total about twice as much or more in dollars compared with residents' costs at public institutions.
The reasons for the fast-rising costs are that law schools are providing courses and student-support programs that require more staff and faculty, the federal survey found. In addition, law schools spent more on faculty salaries and library resources, among other things, to boost their standing in the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings, law-school officials told the GAO.
Those findings stand in contrast to some criticisms that the accreditation standards for faculty and facilities are a major factor in the cost of law schools. "Officials from more than half of the ABA-accredited schools we spoke with stated they would meet or exceed some ABA accreditation standards even if they were not required," the report says.
Law-school officials also cited recent declines in state appropriations as a reason for rising tuition, federal researchers reported.
Accreditation standards also were not widely blamed for the declining share of African-American law students, most of those surveyed said. Between the 1994-95 and 2006-7 academic years, the percentage of black students has shrunk from 7.5 percent of law school students to 6.5 percent, even as the number of blacks earning bachelor's degrees has grown by two percentage points.
"Most law-school officials, students, and minority-student-group representatives we interviewed focused on issues such as differences in LSAT scores, academic preparation, and professional contacts, rather than accreditation standards, to explain minority access issues," the report says.
But the report also noted that some officials blamed not only accreditation, but also rankings by U.S. News & World Report for lower or static enrollment rates of minorities: "Schools are reluctant to admit applicants with lower LSAT scores because the median LSAT score is a key factor in the U.S. News & World Report rankings."
The study was a requirement of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, passed in 2008, and was meant to compare the costs and level of minority enrollment at law schools to similar professional-degree programs, including medical, dental, and veterinary colleges. Federal researchers surveyed officials at 22 institutions, including three that are not accredited by the ABA, and students in two law programs, one of which did not have the ABA's stamp of approval.