And now things get interesting. As we continue to run through the U.S. News 2012 law school rankings, we get to a crucial set of schools. The schools in this batch are certainly top tier, but they’re not “top 14″; for the most part, though, they charge like top 14 schools (especially the private ones).

So this is the batch of schools where we usually hear questions like: Should I go to this school at full price, or a much lower-ranked school for free? And our answer is usually, “How much lower-ranked are we talking about?”

The bottom line is that when people get into schools like Duke, or Penn, they are going to end up going to that school. But when people get into some of the schools on this list, they do seriously consider other options. Should I retake the LSAT, score better and apply again? How much financial aid am I getting? What’s the job market like in the [secondary market] this school is located in, just in case I get stuck there? Is it worth it to go into this much debt for a degree from that school?

These factors should come into play no matter which law school you get accepted to, but at this point on the U.S. News list, cost factors take on increased importance…

To refresh your memory, here are the schools ranked #16 (remember the 15th-best school is somewhere in the top 14) through #30, according to U.S. News:

16. UCLA
16. Vanderbilt
18. USC
18. Washington (St. Louis)
20. George Washington
20. Minnesota
22. Boston University
23. Indiana University
23. UC Davis
23. Illinois
23. Notre Dame
27. Boston College
27. William & Mary
27. Iowa
30. Emory
30. Fordham
30. UNC – Chapel Hill
30. University of Washington
30. Washington & Lee

There are some fun traditional rivalries in this batch: UCLA v. USC, BU v BC. We’ve also already detailed the precipitous drop in the rankings suffered by Emory. But most of the schools here are very stable, year in and year out. It was a good year for Fordham and Washington & Lee, which jumped into the top 30. It was a bad year for UNC and Georgia, which fell out of the top 30. But overall, these schools remain solid, top-tier choices. There’s no real difference from last year.

Except the price.

We’ve already discussed Minnesota’s almost insulting plan to share the pain between students and faculty at a 13 to 1 ratio.

We haven’t yet mentioned the new plan at Notre Dame. The school told law students on March 11th that tuition would be going up by 6.27%, all the way to $42,870 for the 2011-2012 academic year. The letter tells the law students that their tuition will be going up by more than what other schools will face at the university. Why? Here’s the administration’s explanation to its students:

Especially in a difficult economic time, the University does not take lightly the impact that increased fees have on students and families. When combined with gifts from alumni, however, these funds will enable the Law School to offer a greater diversity of courses and smaller class sizes by increasing the number of faculty to educate and mentor our students. Increasing faculty size will also enable the Law School to offer more advanced courses in rapidly changing areas, as well as more courses that teach transactional, negotiation, alternative dispute resolution, and litigation skills expected of new attorneys in an increasingly competitive job market.

More courses? MOAR COURSES? Not more jobs, but more courses? This reminds me of that time Jesus went to the wedding at Cana and the guests ran out of food and wine and Jesus said: “Well, that was dumb. Why don’t you pay me and my men some money and we will teach you about better party planning protocols for the next wedding?”

So here’s the question, really. Would you rather go to Notre Dame (ranked #23), and pay $42K/year to an administration that thinks you can afford yearly tuition hikes in exchange for an extra alternative dispute resolution course, or would you rather go to Maryland (ranked #42), maybe with a scholarship from an administration that has shown a commitment to keeping the cost of legal education down? Let’s also assume you don’t want to work in the thriving legal market of Indiana, and view Chicago and D.C. as relatively interchangeable.

Do you still end up at Notre Dame because of its U.S. News ranking? The schools in this group really hope your answer to that question is “yes.” Please discuss them, in the comments to this post.

Earlier: Open Thread: 2012 U.S. News Law School Rankings (7 – 14)
Open Thread: 2012 U.S. New Law School Rankings (1 – 6)


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