Yesterday's post looked at how a combination of increasing salaries and decreasing student to faculty ratios has been a major driver in the exploding cost of legal education. What other factors have created a cost structure that will ensure that the current national class of 1Ls is going to graduate with an average of around $125,000 in law school debt alone (among the 85% to 90% of law students who will have such debt)?
A factor which both drives costs up directly and has all sorts of indirect effects that in turn bloat law school operating budgets is the mania for building new facilities.
Law school building campaigns are often classic examples of conspicuous consumption at the social-institutional, rather than the individual, level: School A builds a fancy new building, and as a result School B discovers that it "needs" a new building too, in order to keep up with the academic Jones's. (You can see this same process taking place all over the university, as schools build posh dorms, rec centers, etc., to compete for students, who generally don't realize that they and/or their families are purchasing such amenities at far too high a price).
Now it's true that building campaigns are generally funded via some combination of private money, the university's general fund, and, at public schools, tax dollars. But as Nando points out, when such efforts fall short, part of the direct cost can end up being transferred to law students. Another complicating factor is that to some extent money is, as law students learn to say, fungible: a dollar spent on the physical plant is to a degree a dollar that isn't going to be spent on something else, such as for example holding down tuition increases (Nando also points out that it seems quite odd to be pumping ever-greater sums into bricks and mortar, given changes in information technology that should be making it much cheaper to deliver education outside of contexts that require hundreds of people to all gather together in a $50 million structure at the same time).
A more insidious complication should be obvious to anyone who has ever bought a house that was somewhat bigger and fancier than the purchaser's previous residence. What happens in such circumstances is that people feel impelled by something almost akin to a kind of social gravitational force to fill their new houses up with stuff they wouldn't have bought if they didn't have all that new space to fill. The same thing happens in academia: An institution sinks enormous capital, both literally and metaphorically, into getting a sparkly new building with lots more space than was available in what in retrospect becomes its intolerably inadequate prior digs, and as if by magic all sorts of new "centers" and "groups" and, most of all, administrative personnel, appear almost overnight.
Although there are no figures on the extent to which overall staff levels have increased at ABA law schools, the following related stat is quite telling: While the total number of faculty positions grew by 40% between 1998 and 2008 at accredited law schools, the number of "deans, librarians, and other full-time administrators who teach" grew by a healthy 214.2% over this decade. (Speaking of libraries, pop down to yours and compare the AALS directory from, say, 1980, to the current one. Every other listing in the latter will be for a position that didn't even exist 30 years ago, which explains why it's three times larger than the former).
Now of course it's not as if all this stuff doesn't have some value. For example, all other things being equal it's no doubt desirable to have six career services persons housed in a suite of nice new offices, doing what they can to help students and graduates get jobs. The problem, of course, is that all other things are never equal. When I started teaching 21 years ago, my law school's career services department consisted of one part-time employee who had a desk in the admissions office. Coming as I did from the resplendent environs of the elite law school where I had so recently been a student, this seemed on one level rather absurd. On quite another level, resident tuition was literally one-tenth of what it is today.
The point is that, as always, the question needs to be not does this expenditure improve the quality of what we're doing (whatever that may be), but rather, does it do so at a reasonable cost? Because of the dysfunctional way in which legal education is priced and paid for, this question is rarely asked as often or as insistently as it ought to be, by those who are in the best position to affect the answer.