Rubber Links–The ABA and U.S. News BLAME EACH OTHER for Rising Law School Tuition

Break out the popcorn!

ABA states in, “Report of the Special Committee on the U.S. News and World Report Rankings Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar“:

[U.S. News'] current methodology tends to increase the costs of legal education for students. As a recent study by the United States Government Accountability Office has suggested, the U.S. News methodology arguably punishes a school that provides a high quality education at an affordable cost. Because low-cost law schools report a lower expenditure per student than higher cost schools, it is difficult for low tuition schools to top the rankings. A school that works hard to hold down costs may indeed find itself falling in the rankings relative to a peer that increases tuition above the rate of inflation each year. U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, GAO-10-20, Higher Education: Issues Related to Law School Cost and Access (Oct. 2009).

Bob Morse of U.S. News rebuts in, “U.S. News Responds to the ABA’s Take on Law School Rankings“:

Law schools and the ABA need to take far more direct responsibility for these trends…[T]here’s basic economics of demand being greater than supply, which is one key reason why law schools can keep raising their tuition. The number of prospective students taking the LSAT test [sic] is still at record levels. Many law schools are still receiving very large numbers of applications despite the poor state of the legal job market. This all means that there is still a near record demand for legal education and not enough capacity at the top schools.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!  The ABA says the rankings encourage counterproductive competitive spending per student, and U.S. News claims the ABA and law schools are responsible for taking 0Ls’ (who’re also at fault for not reading the market) money when jobs aren’t available.  What makes the tuition bubble so pernicious is this: everyone and no one is responsible.

Here though, I credit the ABA for two reasons.  First, in a normal free market, law schools would be competing to sell the best/cheapest legal education to the best prospective students (though we know legal education isn’t anything close to a free market).  From their perspective, more LSAT takers means a larger pool of high-scoring LSAT takers to fight over.  Employers, for their part, should theoretically realize that the applicant pool is as good as it can ever get, so how can they distinguish between law students?  Look at their schools’ ranks in a magazine!  Also, in a normal free market, since there’s such high demand for legal education, more applicants would be accepted and enrollments would swell.  These aren’t things we’re seeing because the legal education system may be malfunctioning, but law schools aren’t so greedy as to pack hundreds of students into gym-sized lecture-halls for mountains of money.

Second, and this is hysterical enough to crack me up for the rest of the weekend: U.S. News is effectively blaming its target audience for rising tuition.  If U.S. News thinks there are more seats at law schools than the economy can handle, then it should both warn 0LS this is the case in big bold letters in its rankings, and it should admit that its rankings enterprise is necessarily compromised because it can’t rank every law school while knowing a priori that many legal educations law schools sell are worth nothing due to the recession and increasingly due to the tuition bubble.  Also, please explain this statement to me, “not enough capacity at the top schools.”  Does this mean that all but the top schools are nonperforming?  U.S. News should inform its readers if this is the case.  Something tells me that conceding its rankings methodology provides no useful data for consumers won’t sell magazines.

Since we know legal education isn’t a free market, the system needs to (a) allow student loans to be dischargeable in bankruptcy, and (b) cap the number of law students each year, nationwide and regionally, to a reasonably calculated proportion of law students relative to population or economic output or better yet both.  This will reduce the specter of J.D. oversupply, and it will prevent “super law schools” from overspecializing law students with knowledge they’ll never need.  Until then, enjoy the blame games.

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