Who's at Fault for the High Cost of Law School?

Are the U.S. News law school rankings so powerful they cause law school tuitions to increase?

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The Government Accountability Office has concluded that the U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings are one the key factors behind skyrocketing law school tuitions. That's according to an October report by the GAO entitled "Higher Education: Issues Related to Law School Cost and Access."

The GAO said that, "according to law school officials, the move to a more hands-on, resource-intensive approach to legal education and competition among schools for higher rankings appear to be the main factors driving the cost of law school, while ABA accreditation requirements appear to play a minor role. Additionally, officials at public law schools reported that recent decreases in state funding are a contributor to rising tuition at public schools."

In addition, the GAO points out that "officials at most of the ABA-accredited law schools we spoke with and student representatives reported that schools compete to attract students and faculty and to increase their U.S. News and World Report ranking. This competition has had an impact on cost because: Rankings are determined in part by such cost-related factors as per student expenditures, student-faculty ratio, and library resources; according to law school officials, schools offer clinics and diverse elective courses to compete for students; to attract the best faculty, school officials reported that they may offer higher salaries."

There are weaknesses in the report's methodology. The GAO primarily relied on the views of a very small number of law school academic insiders and the American Bar Association. The law school academic community should have taken more direct responsibility for its own administrative actions that boost tuitions. Many legal educators believe that the ABA's accreditation process, which has numerous standards for faculty and school facilities, plays a far more significant role in adding to the rising cost of legal education than GAO gives it credit for.

The GAO did not mention another factor that is increasing tuitions: Many law schools are viewed as "cash cows" at universities. The central administration of each university gives a portion of a law school's tuition dollars to other parts of campus, and the law school has to run the school on less than the full amount the students paid.

The GAO also did not point out that law is a very popular, high-demand profession with high starting salaries. That has meant that law schools have had little resistance when they raised tuitions.

The GAO did not seek or receive input from U.S. News for its report.

The report is causing a great stir in the legal blogosphere:

  • Tax Prof: GAO: U.S. News Rankings, Not Accreditation, Key Driver of Law School Tuition
  • ABA Journal: GAO Puts Blame on US News Rankings for High Law School Tuition
  • Above the Law: New Villain in Law School Debt Tragedy
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education: Law-School Cost Is Pushed Up by Quest for Prestige, Not Accreditation, GAO Survey Finds
  • Huffington Post: While Law School Tuition Skyrockets, Government Student Loan Limits Remain Stagnant
  • Inside Higher Ed: GAO Plays Down Accreditation's Role in Driving Up Law School Prices
  • The Shark: More Rankings, More Problems: US News to Blame for High Tuition
  • University of Chicago Faculty Blog: Law School Costs at the Margin
  • Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of America's Best Colleges.