LAW SCHOOLS AS PROFIT CENTERS

Recently, I wrote about law schools using merit scholarships to fill seats in their entering first-year classes. Economists would say that such price-cutting makes sense in a declining market for new students. Today’s topic considers what may seem at first to be a contradictory trend: Average law school tuition continues to rise at more than double the rate of inflation.

An article in The National Law Journal mused that perhaps rising tuition in the face of reduced demand meant that the fundamental laws of economics might not apply to law schools. In fact, rising tuition along with the proliferation of non-need-based scholarships are parts of the same failing model that regards law school as a business for which U.S. News & World Report rankings provide the definitive metric.

Is relevant demand sufficiently low?

There were 68,000 applicants for the fall 2012 entering class. But in 2011, law schools admitted 55,800, of whom 48,700 enrolled. Two points about these numbers are key.

First, admissions and enrollments may be down, but not nearly enough to create equilibrium with the far fewer available legal jobs for new graduates. In fact, the recent drop in enrollments has simply returned them to 2006 levels. (Law schools were producing too many lawyers in those days, too.)

Second, the laws of economics are performing as expected. Student demand (68,000 applicants in 2012) still outstrips supply (48,700 enrollments in 2011). That sends a signal to deans that they can raise the list price that they charge for tuition, provided that the quality of the applicants doesn’t matter to them.

But quality — as measured by U.S. News rankings methodology — does matter to them. That’s where discounts enter the equation. Published tuition is the list price, but many schools are offering individual scholarships (discounts from list price) in an effort to bolster the U.S. News ranking credentials of their entering first-year classes.

As part of a total profit-maximzing strategy, increasing the list price accomplishes two objectives. First, it generates additional revenues from students willing to pay (or borrow to pay) the full amount. That’s easy money for the school.

Second, it enhances pricing flexibility to recruit so-called desirable candidates (that is, those who will enhance the school’s U.S. News ranking). A higher starting price creates more room to maneuver — through selective and even bigger discounts (scholarships) that seal the deal.

What’s ahead?

In this scenario, U.S. News wields stunning power to determine the characteristics of the next generation of lawyers. But the magazine can’t solve the problems that arrive at graduation time. At the current rate of attorney production, only about half of new graduates will find jobs requiring a legal degree. Since the Great Recession began, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has already revised downward its projection of new legal jobs over the next decade. But even that revision results in an estimate that is probably overly optimistic.

Meanwhile, in case you missed it, yet another law school dean departed recently in a dispute over her university’s efforts to funnel law school revenues back to the mother ship. That implicates another U.S. News rankings item as it relates to rising tuition: The ranking methodology incentivizes deans to spend more, regardless whether it adds value to a student’s education or employment prospects.

The victims

Put it all together: Declining admissions aren’t declining enough, rising tuition is rising too much; discounts go to students with desirable LSATs and GPAs at the expense of other students who really need financial aid; law schools return a portion of profits to their universities; and every year the system is still producing far too many attorneys. Added to this is the exploding educational debt that is financing this mess.

The current hype that borders on hysteria suggests that declining student interest in law school heralds a major self-correction of the market that will remedy all of these problems. But the sad truth is that the problems are still growing and the end is nowhere in sight.

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