Stanford Law School’s Tuition Increase Sparks Outrage: Stanford? Really?

Stanford Law School announced an increase in 2011-12 tuition of approximately 5.75%.  The reaction has generally not been kind.  Well, ok, no one considering law school wants to pay more (free tuition would be even better).  But those who want to put Stanford in the ethical stock seem a little naïve about what law schools are and a little near-sighted about what Stanford is relative to other law schools.

What seems to have irritated some is that the law school’s proposed tuition increase outpaces other increases at Stanford, which were in the 3.5% range.  But why the outrage?  Is it because we’re still under the illusion that law schools aren’t businesses?  In fact, they not only operate as businesses but they’re cows that keep on giving a lovely green milk to their home institutions, even if it’s not St. Patrick’s Day.  Outside of business schools, I’d bet they’re the most profitable academic limb of most schools that have law schools.  Why do law schools continue to raise tuition and fees?  Well, because they like green milk and because they can—and jeremiads about the unfairness of it all aren’t likely to stop them.

I’m just not convinced that turning law school tuition issues into a moral question is helpful for prospective law students.  If you really want to go to law school and be a lawyer, a 5-6% change in costs doesn’t change very much for you (though that doesn’t include the very real possibility that there will be additional increases next year and the year after).  If that level of increase does change your career aspirations, you should seriously think about whether that career goal would be worth it even at a slightly lower—but still huge—price tag.

For those who really do want to be lawyers, a better way of looking at the issue is to simply ask whether Stanford, relative to other law schools, is worth 5.75% more than it was last year.  Here are some basic considerations.  Stanford is one of a handful of law schools whose degree is portable across the country.  It’s also in an elite group of law schools whose graduates have a very wide range of post-law school employment options.  Truly national law schools have always been rare.  Schools whose graduates generally fare well have become fewer and further between in the last few years.  I doubt that 5-6% more in tuition significantly changes the calculus of investment vs. return on investment for most prospective law students.  (Full disclosure: had I not gone to Yale, I likely would have gone to Stanford, for those reasons and my preference for small schools, among others—and a 6% increase wouldn’t have changed that). 

In addition, 5.75% is not an excessive increase relative to what law schools have done in the last few years.  We’ve noted that 2010-11 tuition increases were highest in the law schools ranked 42-63 in the US News rankings.  Last year alone, those schools raised tuition an average of 8.7%.  Now, that’s a lot (the top 5 raised tuition an average of 5.3%), especially since those schools, unlike Stanford, do not generally have great post-law school employment placement (or at least they won’t reveal meaningful data that would allow us to assess whether they do).  At a much higher level, a school in the top 25 sent a letter to its alumni desperately seeking their help finding jobs for its graduates.

So, at Stanford, you’ll pay slightly more but you’ll most likely be able to find a good job after you’re done.  At non-elite schools, you’ll pay only a little bit less for much less probable prospects.  Which is the better investment?  Complaining about Stanford increasing tuition is a little like complaining when a high-quality product increases its prices—what do we expect?  What’s shocking about law school tuition is that a lot of equivalents of cheap knock-offs (judged by the criterion of the payoff of your investment) have increased their prices more.  If you want to be outraged, there’s the better target.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on February 22, 2011.

2 Responses to “Stanford Law School’s Tuition Increase Sparks Outrage: Stanford? Really?”

  1. […] be sure, some law schools have announced increases in tuition, Stanford the most notable among them.  But here’s an interesting fact—with one exception, those announcing increases have been […]

  2. […] top 10 schools raised theirs an average of 5.04% (which makes the amount of adverse publicity that Stanford received for its tuition increase even more perplexing).  For law schools, of course, any increase in what has been essentially an inflationless economy […]

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