Karen Sloan, “Law Schools Gain Greater Autonomy,” The National Law Journal, August 19, 2013.
The [ABA Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar] moved to eliminate the tenure requirement for doctrinal faculty and deans, make it easier for students to take online courses, get rid of the minimum faculty size rule, and create a clearer path for schools seeking variances from the accreditation standards, among other changes.
The proposed changes to the accreditation rules can be found here (PDF), but be warned, it’s a huge number of changes and I’m mostly going to take Sloan’s word on the contents. If the ABA House of Delegates passes them, though, the question is whether law schools will lower their tuition and diversify their offerings.
I doubt it. For example, Sloan writes:
[T]he council voted to eliminate a rule requiring law schools to maintain at least one full-time equivalent faculty member for every 30 students and preferably one for every 20 students — under the theory that determining the actual size of a law faculty is overly complicated, given the number of adjuncts and part-time professors. Additionally, law faculties have grown significantly in size over time and most schools are already well below that 30-to-1 ratio, the council reasoned. The consensus was that a rule spelling out the minimum size of a faculty is no longer necessary.
In other words, law schools chose more professors over reduced tuition. If anything, the council should have put in a maximum ratio to prevent law schools from hiring needless faculty. To refresh your recollection, here’s what the ratio looks like today:
(Source: “Student Faculty Ratio” (PDF))
Other reforms, like increasing the amount of distance education students are allowed to take, are unlikely to reduce costs either. Students are paying for the law degree’s signaling value—not the marginal cost of learning various legal doctrines, which can be done with an Internet connection or one of those book thingies. The only real question is whether some law schools (especially the for-profits) will try to reduce faculty to skim more off the top for deans (and shareholders) while increasing the sticker price.
One change that might help law students is the council’s decision to eliminate the rule limiting full-time law students to working only 20 hours per week. Although the council did so because the old rule is unenforceable, in better economic times it means that law students might work instead of binge on Grad PLUS loans for living expenses.
So why is tuition unlikely to go down with changes to the accreditation rules? Because they don’t really bear on cost. In 2009, A Government Accounting Office report (PDF) concluded that the ABA’s accreditation standards, while annoying, weren’t driving law school tuition increases. Citing interviews of law school deans (who, admittedly, might be full of it), the report placed the blame on increased demand for clinics and fighting over rankings. I’d bet the clinics are really a part of the rankings feuding and not an independent factor.
In short, the ABA is doing the equivalent of proposing relaxing some needless building code restrictions in the hope that housing prices will stop increasing, but sudden rises in the cost of housing comes more from land values than demand for capital. At best, the landowners will build leaner buildings but still charge more for them.
One might object and say that with applications dropping marginal law schools will have to innovate or die. I have two responses: First, some of those schools will die no matter what they do; it’s just a question of how long it takes before the Grad PLUS loan tap is shut off. Second, more importantly, I’m not concerned about the marginal law school—i.e. the last one left standing—I’m concerned about the behavior of the first law school left standing. With Grad PLUS loans plus IBR (and the off-chance that the cancellation tax penalty will be removed in the future), how much can elite schools charge before people won’t go? Will the Supreme Court justices of the next generation comment on how they felt the day IBR canceled the law school debt they had no chance of repaying? How many professional school graduates will engage in unconscionable, but predictable, IBR tax evasion?
Those are the real questions about where all this is going, and while I’m welcome to being proven wrong and find that law schools trim their prices as they “innovate,” I don’t predict it will happen because if they wanted to employ only one professor for every 30 full-time-equivalent students they would have done so by now. Nevertheless, if the House of Delegates passes its rules, my hypothesis will be put to the test.