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As Law School Tuitions Climb, So Does Demand

Some law schools retool curricula to keep the value of a J.D. strong.

By + More

Demand for a legal education remains high, despite odds stacking against it.

Tuition has risen for the 2010-2011 school year at law schools across the country, even as industry jobs disappear by the month. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows 3,900 jobs were cut from the legal sector in June alone, capping off a year of 22,200 job losses. 

But concurrently, more LSAT tests were administered in the most recent testing year than ever before. From June 2009 to February 2010, 171,514 tests were given out, a 13.3 percent increase from the previous testing year, says Wendy Margolis, communications director at the nonprofit Law School Admission Council.

[Read 7 Tips for LSAT Success.] 

With demand and cost climbing higher and job prospects diminishing, what's happening to the value of a legal education? The answer is questionable, at least for the J.D. credential itself, says Bill Henderson, law professor at the Indiana University—Bloomington's Maurer School of Law

"I think [law school] makes you a better problem solver, but the signaling value [of the degree] is diluted," Henderson says. "Is it worth $50,000 a year? I think, for signaling value, the answer is increasingly 'no.' " 

Henderson noted that in this economic climate, even a degree from a top school does not guarantee a legal job. But California-based law school admissions consultant Ann Levine says that dimming job prospects and increasingly high tuition have yet to deter her nationwide client pool from seeking elite placements. 

"I had thought people would be more concerned about scholarships and willing to let go of ranking a little bit; I was wrong," says Levine. "Still, people want to generally go to the best law school they can get into, regardless of costs." 

[See our Best Law Schools rankings.] 

One of Levine's clients, Oriana Pietrangelo, turned down several full rides for a partial scholarship this fall to Notre Dame Law School, a top tier school whose "name goes fairly far," she says. 

"It would have been nice to not have any debt," Pietrangelo says. "But I feel like I'm more likely to have a better job and higher paying salary going to Notre Dame as opposed to somewhere else." 

But Pietrangelo is not yet devoted to Notre Dame Law School. She is on the waitlist at Northwestern University School of Law and, if accepted, she plans to attend and pay full tuition, she says, because it is ranked higher than Notre Dame.

While "everyone talks about the cost of tuition," Levine says, "it's actually not going to impact demand greatly because I think people see it as somewhat inevitable and beyond their control." 

Reasons for tuition increases vary by school, though the universal pattern has shown that tuition rarely goes down.

Instead, relatively small tuition increases are touted as big news. At Vanderbilt University Law School, tuition will increase 2.7 percent to $44,900 before fees, the smallest uptick in 44 years, according to the school.

Fiscally tough times especially hurt public law schools. Funding for higher education has been slashed in at least 41 financially strapped states, according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit research organization. Higher education funding in Texas, for example, was reduced by $73 million, and public universities in Indiana saw a $150 million decrease this year.

[See which state university systems are most likely to face budget cuts.] 

Regents board members approve public university tuitions in their respective states. In Arizona, where tuition increased at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law and University of Arizona Law School's James E. Rogers College of Law, outgoing president of the Arizona Board of Regents Ernest Calderón said graduate schools shoulder more of the budget burden. 

"Certainly for the professions that tend to have a significant financial reward on the back end, we believe that students can pay a higher rate—whatever the market will allow for professional and graduate school," Calderón said. "Then, if they have debt, they can retire that."

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