Law Schools, Money, Student Loans

The Law School Version Of Black Friday

I really don’t want to be that guy at the dinner table who points out that the mashed potatoes are lumpy and the turkey is a bit dry. A law school is cutting tuition by half for some students, and for that we should be thankful. This follows a trend, seen here and there, in which law schools are starting to respond to the low interest in legal education by competing on price.

Except it also follows the trend of not really being a tuition “cut.” Instead it’s a tuition scholarship that is worth about half of the tuition, while the school maintains its high listed sticker price.

Well, this is Above the Law, not a Thanksgivukkah meal. Who wants a side of hater?

Yesterday, everybody and the mother wanted to tell us about Penn State Law cutting its tuition in half for in-state residents. The move made sense: Penn State Law has received a ton of bad press for its failed attempt to consolidate both of its campuses (their tuition credits will apply to both campuses). Their old dean even ran away to China. And schools in neighboring Ohio have announced tuition reductions for out-of-state students, enticing Pennsylvania kids away from their state university. And that’s before we get into the whole college football coach who liked to have sex with little kids thing that has kind of covered the entire institution with “eww.”

While a ton of law schools have experienced declining applications, Penn State Law has been hit particularly hard. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports on how Penn State Law will implement these tuition credits:

The university’s “Commonwealth Scholars” program for Pennsylvania residents offers an annual $20,000 reduction off the $41,088 tuition for in-state law school students at Penn State’s Carlisle and University Park programs. It is renewable for three years, bringing the potential value to $60,000 for students.

“We have a superb academic program with some of the nation’s finest classroom teachers and experiential learning opportunities,” interim law dean James Houck said in a prepared statement. “Yet our research shows that some individuals are unable to take advantage of it because of cost. This program will increase access to legal education for well-qualified Pennsylvania residents who otherwise may not have considered us.”

The grant is available to all prospective law school students that Penn State admits for fall 2014 enrollment, university officials said. They must be able to show that Pennsylvania is their primary residence. Grant recipients will continue to be eligible for other scholarships and need-based financial aid.

But structuring this as a tuition credit available only to those applying for fall 2014 enrollment makes this the law school version of Black Friday. “Buy NOW!” “50% Off!” “You would pay $41,088 for this product, but we’re practically giving it away with this $20,000 rebate. OUR PHONE LINES ARE OPEN!” It’s like Penn State is trying to sell law school on QVC.

And it’s not just the marketing that is troubling. Note that Penn State says that people will be able to renew their $20,000 scholarship all three years. But they don’t say that Penn State will hold its atrocious $41,088 tuition in check for all three years. If Penn State raises tuition to $50,000 by 2017 (which is not an unreasonable expectation given the historic behavior of law schools), people who started in 2014 will no longer be getting 50% off.

Don’t get me wrong: $60,000 off tuition over three years of law school is nothing to sneeze at. You should take it if you were already thinking of going to Penn State. But if you weren’t going to apply to law school at all because of your concerns about the high cost of law school and feeble job prospects of graduates, this Penn State marketing gambit shouldn’t confuse you. To go back to the Black Friday analogy, if you’ve already figured out that paying $50 bucks for an Elmo doll is an unnecessary sacrifice to rank consumerism, your calculus shouldn’t change that much if the doll comes with a $20 mail-in rebate.

More importantly, this program doesn’t appear to represent a serious attempt to reform the law school price/value discrepancy. If Penn State Law was serious, they’d cut tuition — the actual sticker price — and commit themselves to learning to operate a law school on a budget that makes sense for the students it admits.

Instead, they’re hoping this one-time “special offer” nets them more money over three years (“giving” students $60,000 over three years while still making nearly $100K off of them over that time period is a lot better than nothing). Next year, who knows, they’re free to go back to charging whatever outrageous figure they want. Right now, law school administrators all across the country are hoping that this is a dream (nightmare), and that soon, real soon, they’ll be able to go back to charging whatever they want to students who are eager to put themselves in financial peril while chasing a law degree.

If you can take advantage of this program, good for you. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this sale represents the market correction that is desperately needed in legal education.

Seeing enrollment slide, Penn State halves in-state law school tuition [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]

Earlier: A Trend in the Making: Falling Law School Tuition? Let’s Make It Happen, People!
Penn State Law Will Continue To Have Two Campuses, Because Politicians Are Even Dumber Than You Think

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