Anthony Kennedy, Law Schools, Student Loans

Law School: Slashing Class Size, Keeping Tuition High

We’ve talked extensively about the decline in law school applications. Law schools are now entering a time of consequences. Schools at the very top are going to do fine. Shockingly, schools at the very bottom are probably also okay, as there is always somebody who has no business going to law school who still wants to go.

But schools in the great middle — from just outside the top tier to anybody trying to maintain a bare minimum of standards — are feeling the crunch.

Something has to give. And one law school on the West Coast has decided that people should be the first to go. First, the school fired staff. Now, the school is slashing class size. But I’ll note that the school does not seem to be slashing salaries or cutting tuition. Apparently, people are easier to cut than budgets….

The McGeorge School of Law is massively downsizing, as reported in the Sacramento Bee (via Morning Docket):

Student enrollment at University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law will scale down to about 600 students over the next three years, accompanied by about a 40 percent reduction in staff.

Bethany Daniels, spokeswoman at the McGeorge campus at 3200 Fifth Ave., in Sacramento, said McGeorge student enrollment totaled 1,036 students in fall of 2010.

That sounds like a significant blow to the school. Clearly they’re struggling to attract students to the program. But one McGeorge graduate emailed in to defend his alma mater:

[O]verall, the professors are great and are really focused on teaching their students. California bar subjects are mandatory courses at McGeorge, and the traditional first year subjects are year-long courses rather than just a semester so students have more time to master them. Additionally, McGeorge is known for producing practice-ready lawyers with solid skills. And while we may not get much traction elsewhere, we pretty much own the Sacramento legal market (even with UC Davis Law nearby).

Our claim to fame though, is that Justice Anthony Kennedy was a professor here when he was appointed to the Supreme Court, and still remains part of the faculty. Every summer, he teaches a course on fundamental rights in Salzburg, Austria for McGeorge students (and anyone who wants to join really) and usually visits the campus at least once every other year, so students have access to him.

Cutting seats and staff is of course one way to respond to the crisis in legal education. Another way would be to do something about tuition, for the love of God. McGeorge charges $44,690 per year for law school. Surely, McGeorge has engaged in the same kind of aggressive scholarship tactics that other schools have tried, so it’s effective tuition rate is probably much lower. But still, note how the school is much more willing to cut seats and a bunch of staff than drop that big number for the people who will still go to McGeorge and pay or borrow full price.

The reason why is obvious. If the law school economy rebounds tomorrow, McGeorge can easily re-add the 600 seats. It can easily re-add staff. But if it slashes tuition by 40%… well, gosh, it’ll take it a while to raise it back up 40 percent when the economy rebounds. Better to hold that outrageously high number where it is, because people are more elastic than tuition.

And of course the school is cutting staff to make its budget balance instead of reducing salaries of its professors. Because in 2013, who needs, say, more CAREER SERVICES OFFICERS when you have Justice Anthony Kennedy teaching summer school. Because I’m sure Justice Kennedy helps McGeorge students get the kind of jobs that justify nearly $45K in tuition.

McGeorge enjoys the specific problem of being a local law school in a government town when the government is broke. Now more than ever, the school needs aggressive outreach by career services, selling McGeorge students to people outside Sacramento and making sure that local students get their share of jobs in the local economy — as opposed to having those opportunities carpetbagged by students from other California schools who have been pushed out of bigger markets. Instead, MeGeorge cut staff… so the students who still go will get worse services. Have fun, class of 2016.

Sometimes, I don’t even know if law schools can be even be more broken. In response to an inability to attract students to its program, McGeorge is going to offer the same program for the same cost taught by the same people. It’s like a baseball team that can’t sell out its stadium so it solves the problem by demolishing the right-field bleachers, including right field and the right fielder.

And look, I appreciate that schools like McGeorge are in a tough position. When they can’t attract students to pay high prices, the staff that provides services seems like an easier place to cut than taking on the faculty. But doing what is easy isn’t the same as doing what is right. Law schools are not going to be able to get their budgets into balance until they start cutting professorial salaries.

If I were dean, I’d start by slashing the salaries of non-tenured professors, then cut the salaries of any tenured professors I was contractually allowed to cut. Then I’d make professors actually teach, and not just one class in the summer. If professors don’t like it, they can leave; there will always be plenty of people who are happy to teach law students instead of dealing with the demands of paying clients. That’s the harder road; it’s much easier to crap all over staff and student services. But the relentless search for easy solutions is kind of what brought us to this problem in the first place.

The cost is too high for the value provided. If you’re not working on reducing the cost for students or increasing the value students receive, then what are you doing?

McGeorge law school says it will shrink by more than 40 percent [Sacramento Bee via Morning Docket]

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