Why does law school cost so much? Imagine a world in which law schools were run in such an efficient and rational manner that they cost students just a few hundred dollars per month in tuition, while delivering the same quality of education (such as it is) as they do today. Employing what some might consider almost mystical powers of perception, I have peered into the distant utopian future and seen the outlines of such a world. It is called "the 1980s." (Note: All monetary figures in this post are expressed in current, inflation-adjusted 2011 dollars).
25 years ago, i.e., roughly around the time that most of the people running law schools today were law students, median resident tuition at public law schools was $3,582 per year (Again, hard as it may be to believe, that figure is inflation-adjusted. The nominal figure was less than half that). But LawProf, you say -- wasn't that during the socialist regime of President Ronald Reagan, when tax subsidies for public education in America were at positively Scandinavian levels of munificence? (I well remember Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign slogan, "The Struggle of the Proletariat is a Political Struggle").
True enough, young Jedi. I see you have learned to think like a lawyer, and to distinguish otherwise similar fact patterns. But learn you now this: Median private law school tuition was $14,762, in present dollars. That's right: 25 years ago, completely unsubsidized legal education at ABA-accredited law schools was slightly more than one third of what it is at such schools today, and 25% less than resident tuition at public law schools today. (Median tuition for private law schools is now nearly $40,000 per year, and median resident tuition is about $18,500). And note these are medians, which means of course that half of all law schools had lower tuition than these figures represent.
In other words, unless you assume that the law school graduates of a couple of decades ago were drastically less well-prepared to practice law -- and to teach it! -- it seems that figuring out a way to provide a perfectly adequate legal education at a small fraction of today's cost should not be the equivalent of discovering a cure for cancer, or leading the Detroit Lions to a Super Bowl victory. No miracles are necessary. Instead, law schools could just stop doing the things they've been doing with increasing intensity over the past 25 years that have put the cost of legal education through the roof.
The main drivers of law school expenses are: faculty and staff compensation, physical plant expenditures, library operating costs, financial aid for students, and cross-subsidization of other university programs. With the possible exception of the last item, the cost of all the other things on this list has skyrocketed at the typical law school over the course of the last generation.
The first step toward stopping this pattern is to recognize it for what it is: that is, a series of discrete decisions on the part of law schools (or more accurately the law school cartel -- for as we shall see what we have here is a classic collective action problem) that were not mandated by external economic or political pressures, but have been produced by a combination of the regulatory structure of contemporary legal education, and the ideological structure of contemporary American society, with the technical academic description of the latter being "I've got mine Jack."
Over the next few weeks, law school faculties will be getting together for the first meeting of the academic year, at which it's traditional to discuss long-range goals and strategy and the like. Here's what I recommend as one possible agenda item for such discussions: How can we stop spending like drunken sailors, given that we're passing on the tab to people who, increasingly, can't really afford to pay it? This is not, needless to say, merely an ethical question. It's very much a pragmatic question, given that the laws of economics predict that, if present trends continue, we're going to get cut off rather abruptly. From the perspective of sheer self-interest, it would be better to sober up gradually. And the first step is to recognize the problem for what it really is.