Friday, November 18, 2011

Proposed tuition hike creates stir at U of L Law

The SBA's tuition poster
If you're thinking about going to law school, you probably already know about the dire employment situation for graduates, and the massive amount of debt you are going to rack up over the next three years. You also may know that here at Louisville, we rest our reputation on being a "value school" where you can get a solid J.D. without a six-figure tab. That doesn't mean students here are happy with the price they're paying for tuition, especially when it comes to the out-of-state rate. Over the last few days, there's been growing concern over plans to jack up tuition again -- by another six percent, plus a proposed fee of $206.

Our law school is typically not prone to controversy. In my time here, there have been no major protests like this one, and certainly no scandals like this one or this one. But there's good reason to be concerned about skyrocketing tuition, and I am glad the S.B.A. (Student Bar Association) is raising its eyebrows. In a recent letter to Dean Jim Chen and members of the administration, the group decried the proposed increases, and a related reduction in the law library's budget. The letter noted that students will be paying roughly $1,200 more next year with the latest increase, and that tuition across the university will have increased 83 percent since 2004. For even more startling figures, see the poster (image, above right) that the SBA is circulating to drum up awareness about the issue. The fine print is hard to read, but the smallest number represents tuition in 1992-93. The bottom two numbers show proposed rates next year for in-state and out-of-state students, respectively.
I'm no expert on this issue, but I do have a couple of (barely educated) opinions. For starters, the tuition problem is not isolated to Louisville, and in many ways it's a smaller issue here that it is in other places. For a glimpse of a truly horrifying law school tuition debacle, check out this excellent article about a private law school in New York City where the tuition is nearly $50,000 a year -- about the same as the typical starting salary for graduates. At Louisville, therefore, I don't think we need to use a sledgehammer to swat a fly. Still, a hike of more than 6 percent in an awful economy just doesn't make sense to me when one of our claims to fame is value. If the school absolutely must extract more money for its budget, here are the two areas where I would focus:

1. Tuition for in-state students. If students are going to bear the burden, let's keep costs down for out-of-staters. Protectionist tuition policies for Kentucky residents like myself are fine, but I don't mind shouldering a little more of the burden. Plus, by keeping tuition increases at a minimum for out-of-staters, we'll attract more quality out-of-state applicants, which in turn will preserve our precious spot in the Holy Grail.
2. Faculty scholarship. I may not make many friends on this one, but it's hard for me to understand why law school professors in general, and ones at U of L in particular, are expected to spend close to half of their time on scholarship. Sure, writing the occasional law review article is fine, and attending symposia is OK too. But seriously, close to half of their time? Clients at the law firm where I work often blanch at a one-third contingent fee. Reducing the scholarship quota to one quarter, or even one-third, would allow professors to teach more classes, which would either reduce class sizes, or allow us to offer more quality courses, or both. Of course, we also could save tons of money by employing fewer professors and keeping class sizes the same, but the Holy Grail is not going to let that happen.

These two ideas are a starting point in the conversation. I'm sure others have additional, and probably better, opinions. Got a thought of your own? Post it in the comments field below. Also, check out the survey on law school tuition at the upper right of this screen.

1 comment:

  1. Update: Dean Chen spent nearly two hours last night personally answering questions from students about the tuition increases. While it was clear that many students still do not agree with the approach taken by the school, I thought it was pretty cool that our dean took the time to step up and answer questions.

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