Tuition down 6% since 2011, contributing to an annual loss of $1.5 billion for law schools

It’s been no big secret that legal education has been struggling for some time. After all, it’s been well documented that applications to law schools have been down dramatically and so has enrollment.

One might think that the ability to be shocked at the level of hardship law schools are facing would long have ceased …


A recent study, “Competitive Coping Strategies in the American Legal Academy,” put the situation into a whole new light by using cold hard cash as a measurable. And it’s quite a lot of cold hard cash. It’s estimated that law schools have lost $1.5 billion annually in tuition revenue from 2011-2012 to 2016-2017.

“Many casual observers of the American legal academy are aware of the substantial falloff in both the number and conventional qualification of applicants to law school that began after 2010,” the study states. “But few appreciate how widespread and serious it’s disruptions have been …”

The study was undertaken by two legal education scholars and an economist. It shows that law schools lost tuition revenue both because of fewer students and the need to offer more scholarships and grants to attract the shrinking number of qualified students.

Even though base tuition at law schools rose 15 percent in the study’s timeframe, the average tuition discount doubled, so the average net tuition per student fell more than 6 percent, when adjusted for inflation.

And since most of the scholarships go to higher-achieving students, the brunt of the higher tuition fell on weaker students.

“In short, generally those students with the least promising prospects for obtaining or making any economically sustainable use of their law degrees are paying the highest prices to obtain them,” the study said.

The study paints a dire picture of the state of legal education, hurt not just by revenue losses but academic standard declines as well. Because law schools have been failing to attract top-achieving students, law schools, in 2016-2017, had an entering class one-third smaller and median LSAT scores seven percentiles lower than in 2010-2011.

However, not all the schools reacted the same way when it came to the crisis. The higher-ranked schools chose to maintain standards and accept smaller class-sizes, while lesser-ranked schools were not so inclined. Top schools saw LSAT drops of 3 percentiles, while weaker schools experienced 14 to 15 percentile drops.

That decision by the nation’s top schools, though, saved at least 20 other schools from failing, the study said.

“This strategic drive to Profile up at the expense of Size and Net Tuition left literally thousands of viable candidates available to other schools,” the study said.

Only private schools were part of the study. Most public institutions offer in-state or out-of-state tuition. The data on the percentage of students receiving which could not be ascertained.

The study authors were Bernie Burk, a former professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill; Jerry Organ, a law professor at St. Thomas University School of Law near Miami; and Emma Rasiel, an economics professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

As part of their conclusion, they wrote: “We need to be blunt. Change is hard, and never costless. But there is no more time to pretend that this demographic and economic transformation is just some transient episode that can simply be waited out.”