Bringing students into the budgeting process

By Brett C. Burns and William F. Stanger

In 2003, attending the University of California, Davis, School of Law cost $17,195 per year. This academic year, students are paying $47,286.

Like many law schools in recent years, UC Davis has invested heavily in its academic reputation and student services. The School of Law has funded building renovations, classroom technology, Career Services and Academic Success programs, and hired outstanding, high-profile faculty in an effort to remain competitive among top law schools. The great majority of the revenue that finances these efforts comes from student fees and tuition. (Other revenues come from philanthropic giving and a shrinking state appropriation.)

Law students are raising their voices and objecting to the prospect of future fee increases. UC Davis School of Law, known for its collegial and collaborative environment, is addressing budget concerns in a manner true to its reputation. Last fall, after impassioned town-hall meetings between administrators and concerned students, Dean Kevin R. Johnson encouraged students to create the Student Budget Advisory Committee.

The Committee consolidates students’ voices and formalizes student participation in the budget process, providing feedback on Law School revenues and expenditures. The Committee has solicited student feedback about specific school programs and services – which ones students use most, which ones influenced their decision to attend UC Davis, and which ones boost employment prospects.  Now, the Committee is examining the school’s five-year financial projections, discussing the school’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program, and mobilizing students as part of a national tuition movement.

As students are becoming active participants and informed and empowered consumers, school leaders are learning that it is essential to educate students on where their money is going. The administration is enhancing its communications with students, helping them to become better-informed of a little-known but critical fact: that approximately 33% of revenues from student fees are returned as financial aid, making the average true cost of attendance about one-third less than what students commonly refer to as the “sticker price.” In fact, U.S. News & World Report ranks UC Davis School of Law number two among public law schools that award the most financial aid.

There is no better group to engage in the thoughtful process of how to achieve financial stability in the School of Law than the students themselves. They are both the customers and beneficiaries – stakeholders in every level of the school’s operations. As our own Dean Johnson wrote in his article, “The Forgotten Constituency? Law School Deans and Students,” published in the University of Toledo Law Review in 2011: "Through collaboration with students, just as with other constituencies, deans and law schools can create an environment that ensures students receive a high quality legal education and the support that they need to thrive in law school."

While the formation of the Student Budget Advisory Committee is not a magic bullet for the rapidly rising cost of legal education, it is a respectable and appropriate step in keeping students engaged in the budget process at UC Davis School of Law.

Brett C. Burns is Senior Assistant Dean for Administration at the University of California, Davis, School of Law.  William F. Stanger is a third-year law student and a member of the law school’s Student Budget Advisory Committee.