For Second Year in a Row, Mid-Tier Law Schools Distinguish Themselves (for Raising their Tuition More than Anyone Else)

The U.S. News law school rankings always generate a lot of comment in the legal press.  For the most part, the attention is devoted to who rose, who fell, what changed and what didn’t.  Advise-In Solutions is also focused on law school value, and so in addition to discussing the rankings generally, we’ve done an annual analysis of the tuition costs of law school by rank when the U.S. News rankings appear.

Last year, the law schools that raised their tuition by the highest percentage were schools ranked between 42 and 63 (because of ranking ties, we can’t do straight 1-20, 21-40, 41-60, etc. calculations).  They raised their tuition, on average, by a whopping 8.73%, compared to the still-healthy increase of 5.37% from their top 10-ranked brethren.

It’s nice to win something two years in a row, and that’s just what these mid-tier schools have done.  This year, the comparable group (now ranked 47-60 because of a logjam at 42) raised their tuition by an average of 8.67%, imperceptibly less than the previous year, while 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 is free money and they’ve gotten a lot of that in the last couple of years.  

What does it mean for prospective law school students?  The comparative tuition structure of law schools has always been flat, i.e., you won’t pay that much more to go to a top 10 school than you will to go to, well, somewhere else.  That’s primarily because of excess demand; lower-ranked schools can charge a lot of money because there are a whole lot more applicants than law school seats.  To be sure, it appears that law schools this year did not anticipate the decline in law school applications that is upon them.  But even with that decline, there are still about 1.5 times as many applicants as there are seats for them, so demand still outpaces supply.

However, the new tuition numbers indicate that, for the last two years running, the cost of attending one law school as opposed to another has become even flatter.  Meanwhile, the earnings opportunities for law school graduates are decidedly not flat, i.e., the earnings of law school graduates differ dramatically depending on what school they attend.  And that’s to say nothing about the vastly enhanced career flexibility available to graduates of highly-ranked law schools as opposed to graduates of other schools.

For those considering law school, let’s put the impact of flat cost structure in perspective.  A median graduate of a top 10 law school will earn 2.2 times as much as their below-25 counterpart in just the first year after graduation, while paying an average tuition of only 1.36 times more than those attending schools ranked between 11 and 100.  That’s a huge payoff differential for students of those schools.

And that understates the difference in value for several reasons.  Two examples, one on the income side, and one on the cost side.

On the income side, many graduates of elite law schools take prestigious clerkships that don’t pay very much immediately but pay income and flexibility dividends later.  So, first-year income likely more accurately reflects the salary ballpark for graduates of non-elite schools for their first few years out of law school, while understating that number for graduates of more prestigious law schools.

On the cost side, the tuition numbers are just tuition numbers.  Fees and other educational costs (books, supplies, etc.) are flatter than tuition costs.  Your tort book will cost you the same at Chicago as at Elon, so the costs of law school as a whole are somewhat flatter than the already-flat tuition difference.

We recently did a series on whether it can make sense to attend a lower-ranked law school.  Our answer was “yes,” in certain narrow circumstances, mostly having to do with how much you really want to be a lawyer and how much your law school options are constrained by your previous choices in life.

For many, however, attending a lower-ranked law school simply doesn’t make sense, at least not now, even if that’s your only option.  The prospect of incurring high costs for considerably smaller (if any) payoff requires considering what life will be life after law school.  Attending a lower-ranked law school is even less sensible as the cost of law school becomes even higher, proportionately, at middle- and low-ranked law schools.  For the last two years, that’s more and more what the law school world looks like.

It helps explain why law school applications are down—but there’s still a long way to go in that regard, apparently, before law schools of every rank will feel compelled to give their students real career value for their high price.  For those who really want to be lawyers, this year’s data should renew your emphasis on getting your best LSAT score, improving your grade point average if you’re still in college, and submitting your strongest law school application.  Paying more for less is never a good idea, and at these prices, it’s potentially disastrous.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on March 21, 2011.

One Response to “For Second Year in a Row, Mid-Tier Law Schools Distinguish Themselves (for Raising their Tuition More than Anyone Else)”

  1. […] Law school tuition continues to rise, and it’s rising at a pace considerably faster than undergraduate education.  In the late 1980s, […]

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