Lowering Law-School Tuition Benefits Everyone, Not Just the Students

June 23, 2014

Brooklyn Law School will cut tuition by 15 percent beginning in the 2015-16 academic year, a decision that has received sustained national attention and helped prompt a much-needed public discussion about skyrocketing tuitions at law schools.

It is fair to ask why our announcement has hit a nerve among educators, lawyers, and students. After all, while the forthcoming 15-percent reduction is significant, tuition will still be expensive. Nor are we alone in tackling the issue. Other law schools cut tuition in recent years, and no doubt still more will do so for various reasons and in different ways.

The fact is that the financial model of law schools is broken. Unless the schools do what they can to make legal education more affordable, they will price themselves out of business, contribute to the high cost of legal services that most people need, and widen the gap in access to justice.

If you ask who can afford to go to law school or afford a lawyer, the answer is that most Americans cannot. Those who do manage to attend law school often graduate with excruciating debt. They are compelled to pursue jobs with the highest paycheck to find some relief, rather than beginning lower-salaried careers that might better fit their interests and talents, or that meet a critical need for affordable legal services. As a result, untold millions of Americans are deprived of access to quality legal services.

A January report by the American Bar Association’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Education noted that "a widespread practice is to announce nominal tuition rates, and then pursue certain high LSAT or GPA students by offering substantial discounts (styled as scholarships) without regard to the recipient’s financial need. Other students, by contrast, receive little if any benefit from discounting and must rely extensively on borrowing to finance their education." Bear in mind that the average student-loan debt for law graduates is more than $100,000 upon graduation—not including undergraduate student loans. This is a national epidemic, and the federal government is not making it any easier.

Buried in the president’s 2015 budget proposal are changes that, if enacted, would gut the successful Public Service Loan Forgiveness and the Pay As You Earn programs. The purported rationale for curtailing programs that help make affordable legal services available to the public defies logic. Without any promise of deficit-reduction benefits, the proponents give lip service to balancing the federal budget at the expense of indebted students who dedicate themselves to working for low public-interest and public-sector wages.

It is a shameful canard that student loans and indebtedness are the cause of high tuition. They are not; they are the symptom. Tuitions at law schools are soaring, as the American Bar Association and other observers point out, because of the way law schools spend money in pursuit of rankings rather than investing in students, education, professional training, and scholarship. Yes, write to your congressman, but in the meantime we all should row away from the rocks.

With political currents eroding America’s historic and successful support for higher education, we can’t expect anyone else to help. We must do what we can to break this cycle ourselves. By making law school expensive for motivated, talented women and men, we are shortchanging ourselves. In this country, lawyers have played the central role as guardians of our democratic republic and architects of economic opportunity and prosperity. They will be needed even more in the future.

Consequently, Brooklyn Law School is taking a stand against spiraling tuition hikes. A tuition reduction in effect provides every student with a scholarship of equal amount. While we continue to award merit scholarships, we will be more selective and not fixated on LSAT scores. We will expand the availability of our generous postgraduate loan-repayment program and guarantee below-market-value housing.

We strongly believe that these measures—while not solutions in themselves—are important ways to begin to solve the problem of law-school affordability. Lower costs will provide greater access to more qualified students, as well as ease the debt burden that many students face. Being more selective in granting merit aid allows us to spend more on need-based aid and enable greater accessibility and diversity.

Our tuition reduction is an effort to focus on the pursuit of quality education, qualified students, and world-class scholarship—while bucking the conventional wisdom that it is necessary to cater to a deeply flawed rankings system.

We are hardly the only law school that can offer impressive reasons for students to attend our institution, so why would we—or any law school—throw money at propping up artificial rankings when we could be giving back to our students? As we continue to prudently manage our overall costs, strengthen our balance sheet, and benefit from the generosity of our alumni, we are going to invest even more in our students. Law schools feel pressure to cut back, do less, and charge more. We’re taking a different approach: doing more and charging less.

Our school is blessed with a 113-year history as a pioneer, having long opened its doors to women, minorities, foreign students, children of working families and immigrants, and the less advantaged.

Our efforts to make legal education more affordable continue this tradition. We are justifiably proud that we have been able to contribute to a national conversation that affects us all, and we hope others will follow our lead.

Nicholas W. Allard is the dean and a professor at Brooklyn Law School.