Law Schools, Student Loans

Law School To Offer ‘Hybrid’ Online J.D., But The Tuition Will Be Traditional As All Get Out

In response to the declining number of J.D. applicants, law schools are getting creative. The ABA is getting creative. Law schools are desperate to come up with “innovative” offers to entice prospective applicants and encourage them take the plunge into an expensive education with uncertain job prospects.

Well, except for price. Nobody wants to “innovate” on price. Nobody wants to come up with creative or radical approaches to significantly cut the cost of legal education to bring it in line with the actual salary prospects of new graduates. They’ll come up with ridiculous curriculum overhauls to try to make the useless third year seem like something worth paying for, but they won’t lop a year off of the tuition people are expected to pay. If anything, law schools are more likely to try to tack a year onto the J.D. experience, at full price, instead of getting serious about debt reduction.

Today, we’ve got a school that will be offering a “hybrid-online” J.D. It’s the first time ever the ABA has granted a variance (an accreditation exception to a non-traditional program) to a school that allows it to teach half of the credit hours online. In the stodgy world of legal education, “online” sounds new and exciting and reformed-minded.

But when it comes to price: somebody get Admiral Ackbar on the holo because… IT’S A TRAP.

William Mitchell College of Law received ABA approval for a hybrid-online J.D. program, starting in 2015. Students will be able to take half their credit hours online. The other half will be crammed into “intensive” week-long, on-campus sessions at the beginning and end of the semester. But the program will take four years to complete instead of the traditional three.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune managed to get through an entire puff piece on the new program, without mentioning how much it will cost. I find that amazing. I find it amazing that there are so many people who continue to talk about legal education in a manner that is unconnected to the cost of legal education. It’s like talking about the joys of unprotected sex without mentioning the dangers of pregnancy and AIDS.

Proponents of online legal education always tell us that such innovation will lower the cost for students. That line was parroted by the Star-Tribune:

But many say that online classes could, eventually, help cut costs and ease the crushing debt on law students. “They’ve got to do something,” [professor emeritus Robert Oliphant] said. “It offers the potential for tuition to stop going up and maybe, at some point, making law schools more available to a wider group of people.”

Okay, okay, but now that we’ve got an actual, accredited, online-ish J.D., we don’t have to guess and hope about what the cost might be. We have an actual data point. I reached out to William Mitchell and here’s what a representative from the school told me about the cost of its program:

We’re still in the process of finalizing the program’s details, including schedule, curricular offerings and cost. We anticipate tuition for the hybrid program to be comparable to our traditional part-time program, which is $27,050 a year.

Alright. Let’s take the $27,050 figure an multiply that by four years, and we get $108,200, all-in, in tuition. By comparison, William Mitchell’s listed per-semester price for its traditional program is $18,550. Multiply that by six semesters (assuming no yearly increases), and we’re at $111,300 all-in, for tuition. So… that’s your cost savings folks: $3,100 for the opportunity to take four years to finish your allegedly valuable legal education instead of three.

If you can’t make $3,100 in a year with a traditional J.D. without having to go to online school, I don’t even know what to tell you. Can we at least declare a moratorium on online courses resulting in significant cost savings for students until there are, like, ACTUAL COST SAVINGS FOR STUDENTS?

In fairness, there are some potential cost savings from online learning that aren’t captured by tuition. Arguably, taking classes online means you can learn from the comfort of your basement instead of having to move near the law school. I don’t think of the “Minny-apple” as being a particularly expensive city, but Joe Patrice (who is from some kind of Upper-Midwest tundra that I assume was accurately depicted in the movie Fargo) says, “The rural thing in Minnesota could be a real factor. If you get North of Minneapolis, it’s all vast swaths of farm country.” If the online program makes it easier for rural people to get legal education and practice in rural communities, that’s a good thing.

But the dearth of rural lawyers isn’t just because those people are “geographically challenged” in their attempts to find a convenient law school. It’s also because of things like law school costing $108,200 dollars and taking four years. Are there really a lot of people who are excited to go into something approaching six-figures of debt for the opportunity to practice law in a place where they get paid in chicken eggs and fresh milk? Does William Mitchell (or anybody, anywhere) have any statistics that suggest charging people $108K for a J.D. leads to rural attorneys? Can somebody PLEASE look up how much debt Atticus Finch graduated with?!

Note: I haven’t even touched on the debate about whether online legal education is actually good legal education. I don’t care about that debate. I think that debate is stupid because the measure of whether or not a professional-school education is “good” should be whether or not graduates can be employed. But can we at least agree that something “new” and “experimental” and “devoid of any relevant employment data” should cost LESS than the traditional approach? Shouldn’t students willing to be experimental guinea pigs get some kind of discount for their bravery? Remember, the school has absolutely no idea whatsoever how a “hybrid-online” degree will play in the employment market of 2018. Pretending that it will be worth about the same as their traditional offerings is a complete freaking guess.

Which isn’t to say that what William Mitchell is doing is bad. It’s just that at this price point, I don’t think it’s “the future.” It’s a largely cosmetic change that will maybe help William Mitchell get some money out of applicants who might have otherwise not gone to law school.

Now if a school allowed people to pay in Bitcoins, that would be innovative.

William Mitchell law school first to offer ABA-approved online degrees [Minneapolis Star-Tribune]

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