By Maya Itah
(TippingTheScales) -- When Brooklyn Law School announced earlier this month that it would cut tuition by 15%, it sounded less like a briefing and more like a battle cry.
"It's not just the 15% that we're reducing here," Brooklyn Law Dean Nicholas Allard says of the cut, which will go into effect in the 2015-2016 academic year. "It's encouraging law schools everywhere to do what they can—and they're not all going to do it the same way—to make sure that every person in America who is qualified and motivated to become a lawyer is able to do so without regard to their economic background."
This measure isn't Brooklyn Law's first crack at the law school affordability problem. Last year, the school froze 2014 tuition at 2013 levels; tuition is currently $53,850. "I can tell you that our 15% reduction still leaves law school expensive, so it's not in and of itself a solution, and I recognize that," Allard says. "But we are committed to doing what we can to continue to work to make law school more affordable."
The dean doesn't shy away from the uglier realities of the legal world. "Who can afford to go to law school?" he asks. "Who can afford to hire a lawyer? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is that most Americans cannot afford it. And that's wrong."
A handful of other schools have cut tuition as well. The most prestigious school in this group is the University of Iowa, which reduced tuition by 16.4%. Others include the University of Arizona (11% in-state, 8% out-of-state) and Roger Williams University (18%). A few schools have really gone all out: Penn State cut tuition by nearly 50% for in-state students in the class of 2014, and the University of La Verne reduced tuition from $39,500 to $25,000 and completely did away with merit aid. (It's worth mentioning that the American Bar Association revoked La Verne's provisional accreditation in 2011; the school has since earned it back.)
Generally, though, law schools don't do much to level the economic playing field. In January, the American Bar Association Task Force on the Future of Legal Education found that "a widespread practice is to announce nominal tuition rates, and then pursue certain high LSAT or GPA students by offering substantial discounts (styled as scholarships) without regard to the recipient's financial need."
Meanwhile, most other students have to borrow heavily to get through school. A recent Forbes article summed up the problem as follows: "merit scholarship recipients tend to be from tonier zip codes and of paler hues." In plainer words, less advantaged students wind up subsidizing their more advantaged peers. The average debt load for law school graduates was $100,584 as of 2012.
Allard wants to see all graduates have the opportunity to aim for more than debt repayment. When people finish law school with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, "they're not able to pursue jobs where they're most needed in law, perhaps providing affordable, quality services to individuals who don't have high net worth—or to small businesses," he says. "It means that they're not free, really, to follow their passion and pursue work in areas where they're most talented. So it's a big deal."
Christopher LoGalbo, a Brooklyn Law graduate who now works in finance, switched paths because of debt. He's happy where he is, and he doesn't regret earning a JD—" it's a very, very nice differentiator" in his field, he says—but he expected law school to lead him to a different kind of career. "Going in, I thought I wanted to be a litigator," he says. "I was really passionate about the law. I was passionate about being able to fight for people's rights and having the ability to really have an impact on people's lives." But soon enough, reality hit. "I realized that with $200,000 of student loans, it wouldn't be possible for me to live the life that I wanted to lead and work a job like that in the public sector," he says.
That's the kind of outcome Allard wants to avoid. "Now, people may look down their nose at us for how we're doing it and why we're doing it, but if they keep looking down their nose at us, they are not going to see the big cliff ahead that they're about ... to walk off of," he says.
Allard believes part of the problem stems from law schools' dependence on U.S. News' rankings, which heavily rewards institutions that admit students with high GPAs and LSAT scores. "What law schools are doing is, they are taking students' money and spending it to prop up these artificial rankings in a failed so-called news magazine," he says. If the rankings weren't so prominent, it's possible that law schools wouldn't prioritize merit scholarships over need-based aid. "That is a model that's not only bad business—it's bad education," Allard continues. "You're spending money on the fool's errand of propping up rankings rather than investing in education and investing in your students by reducing their tuition costs."
Of course, the school isn't getting rid of merit scholarships altogether. In fact, along with the 15% cut, Brooklyn Law put the spotlight on a new scholarship for students with high college GPAs. However, it is increasing need-based aid and expanding its loan repayment program for graduates who take public sector jobs and other lower-income positions.
Brooklyn Law's measures have even impressed one of the legal academy's most prominent critics: Brian Tamanaha, author of Failing Law Schools and a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "I really admire what they're doing," he told The New York Times. "If we all did this, it would be so much better than the current situation. Everyone is fighting for their own economic survival."
It's hard to say how long the cut will last. Brooklyn Law has made it work by soliciting alumni donations, selling off unneeded real estate, implementing a voluntary staff retirement program, and doing away with smaller things like marketing brochures. The school will need to continue to maintain a strong economic position to support the tuition cuts. "Stay tuned," Allard says confidently. "You know, we've done a lot here in just 18 months. We hope to do a lot more."
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