Best Value Law Schools

First the good news: Our annual analysis of Best Value Law Schools shows that many continue to offer affordable, results-driven educations, ones that can pretty much squash the popular argument that it’s a bad bet to become a lawyer.  

Look at University of Florida Levin College of Law, which finished fourth this year, up from 16th last year. Average student debt fell dramatically. In last year’s analysis, it was more than $94,000. This year, it stood slightly above $76,000. 

Bar passage? Check out The University of Iowa College of Law, which had a very respectable 86% pass rate in 2018. In 2019 it climbed to more than 92%. The state average is below 80%. The Iowa City school moved from sixth to third in our analysis. 

Employment? The top five finishers had employment rates greater than 90%, which is a modified number that takes into account the quality of the jobs. This method places more weight on full-time, long-term jobs that require a J.D.

University of Illinois College of Law, which finished 12th this year, had a 95% bar passage rate, up from 86% two years ago. The Champaign, Ill., school has one of the highest passage rates among the top 20 Best Value law schools. 

Yes, things are looking rosy . . .

But . . .

While there is indeed good news, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the bad. 

Maybe you heard there’s this virus going around? 
And who knows what’s going to happen to legal education affordability because of that? Already, there are concerns that public law schools could see financial cuts because state coffers won’t be as full. And public law schools make up the bulk of our Best Value list, because state support helps keep tuition costs low. 

But private schools could be vulnerable too, particularly those without large endowments. Many rely on tuition to keep the lights on. 

“For 20-plus years I have seen predictions of law schools having to admit larger classes or decrease tuition remission (merit scholarships) for financial viability, and for 20-plus years we have yet to see this at the macro level,” wrote Mike Spivey, founder of Spivey Consulting, in a recent blog post. “If that ever changes, it will be in the next year or two.” 

He noted that three-quarters of law students get some sort of tuition discount. That’s up from 50% in 2011. Is that sustainable? 

Some admissions officers advised prospective students not to defer this year because scholarship money could be tighter next year, according to a Kaplan survey. 

And what about bar passage? That’s another great unknown, since COVID-19 wreaked all sort of havoc with the July bar exam. Many grads were taking the October test online. How will scores be affected? 

And employment? Yikes!

That’s another key part of our Best Value analysis (See page ?? for methodology), and it’s still unknown what the job market is shaping up to be like for the Class of 2020. 

In short, COVID-19 could seriously upset the legal education apple cart, which had been moving along at a very steady climb for several years as schools put more emphasis on making legal education affordable and relevant to the times.

Practical training was hyped. Clinics were added. Linking legal education to tech innovation was big. 

Now what? 

Cream of the crop

First, we’ve got to give a shout-out.

It goes to University of Georgia School of Law, which once again finished first in our Best Value ranking, marking the third time in as many years it has topped the chart.

Yes, a threepeat!

So you know it’s no fluke what’s happening in Athens. University of Georgia’s first-time bar passage rate climbed to 91.76%, well above the state average of 67.78%. No other law school in the nation had a better differential. 

Average debt at graduation for University of Georgia law grads is less than $80,000. Tuition is less than $20,000. Full-time, long-term employment at 10 months after graduation is 92.7%. 

Those numbers speak for themselves when it comes to Best Value, and Dean Peter “Bo” Rutledge emphasized — as he has done in past years — that his school’s goal is to create the best possible return on investment in legal education.

He told a story that very much affected him: When he was teaching at another law school, two of his students — who were a married couple — had a combined undergrad and law school debt of nearly half a million dollars.

“My jaw dropped,” he said. 

However, that was when the legal profession was thriving and such debt was not as crippling as it can be today. Now, many law schools — and this shows in our Best Value analysis — are fighting to keep debt manageable. Many prospective students — who grew up in a recessionary period — are more price conscious. 

Many schools have been fighting the good fight. University of Nebraska College of Law in Lincoln led all of our top Best Value schools for lowest debt — $57,228. And that was lower than last year’s total of $59,442.

University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison reduced debt too — by nearly $10,000. This year, it stands at $70,948.

Not only has the University of Georgia kept debt low but also fewer of its law students are borrowing, Rutledge noted. Eight years ago, 80% of students had to borrow. By 2019, that number had fallen to 57%.

Keeping debt low is vital because students can’t pursue certain jobs — particularly the lower-paying public interest and government ones — if their debt is too high, Rutledge said. They simply can’t afford to take them.

University of Georgia is a flagship university, and because of that it attracts a wide range of students, he said. Some come from underserved portions of the state and want to go back to help remedy inequities. 

“Their ability to achieve such goals is directly tied to their financial burden upon graduation,” he said. 

The pandemic will be a challenge for many law schools, Rutledge said. His school, which is state-supported, saw its budget cut 7% this past summer. It had to cut costs — such as stopping non-essential travel — and lean more on alumni and foundation support, which has been strong, he said.

Indeed, alumni pitched in when it came to the pandemic. When classes went online in the spring, the school did a technology audit to make sure all students had the gizmos they needed to do so properly. One alum purchased 40 internet boosters to give to students in need.

Rutledge did not want the pandemic to derail students’ goals either. This past summer, when COVID-19 was causing all sorts of disruption, the school increased support for summer fellowships, research assistants, bar prep and bridge-to-practice grants. In all, 230 students received more than $560,000 in aid. 

By comparison, 90 fellowships were awarded in 2019, totaling $132,000 — and that had been the previous record high. 

Such efforts are key to helping students get the experience they need to land jobs.

Meanwhile, the school has not had to raise tuition, and a greater number of students got scholarships as well. This year, 82% received them, compared to the 77% last year. 

While the pandemic brought challenges, Rutledge said University of Georgia has been able to weather them because of the cost-conscious measures and fundraising efforts the school has employed for years. Some schools that have not had such a strong focus could be in trouble.

“There could be a lot of wreckage in legal education because of this,” Rutledge said.

He is not alone is his assessment. Scott Galloway, who teaches marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, recently analyzed the strength of the nation’s colleges and universities in the wake of COVID-19. He claims that many have reopened simply because they can’t afford not to. 

“The ugly truth is many college presidents believe they have no choice,” Galloway wrote. “College is an expensive operation with a relatively inflexible cost structure.”

When it came to assessing which schools will survive, he looked at return on investment, tuition costs and value-to-cost ratios. (It’s not our formula, but at least we’re on the same page . . .) He also looked at schools’ weaknesses, such as low endowments and dependence on foreign students.  

Galloway’s model predicts that nearly 90 schools could “perish.”

While Galloway’s study did not focus on law schools, James Phillips, a professor at Chapman University Fowler School of Law in Orange, Calif., connected the dots in a blog post. 

“Based on Professor Galloway’s predictions, 18 law schools will perish in the near future (because their university will perish),” he wrote.

They include such well-known schools as Fordham University School of Law in New York City; Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, N.J.; Loyola University Chicago School of Law . . .

Interestingly, none of the 18 law schools are high on our Best Value list.

Coincidence?

Look at University of Georgia, first on our Best Value list. In Galloway’s assessment, that school will “thrive,” Most of our leading Best Value schools are in Galloway’s “survive” category.

Again, coincidence?

Phillips did note that Galloway’s analysis could be flawed. For example, Chapman was listed as a school that would perish. 

“Yet Chapman is doing quite well right now,” Phillips wrote, “so well, that not only has it not had to lay off faculty, it hasn’t even had to cut their pay. Hardly the stuff of an institution that is about to perish.”

But Phillips did end with this ominous note: “Still, there is no doubt the pandemic may thin the herd, so to speak, of American law schools. Just how much thinning, and which schools, remains to be seen.”

Here’s a not-so-bold prediction: University of Florida won’t be one of them. 

First of all, the Gainesville school got the “survive” nod. And, it has continued to be among the top Best Value law schools for several years running. 

Again, let the numbers speak for themselves: University of Florida’s bar passage rate was 87% (up from 71% the year before), tuition is less than $22,000 and its graduate employment rate was a stellar 95%. As we noted earlier, debt fell too.

And the school is climbing in other rankings as well. In 2015, it was 48th in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of best law schools, a ranking largely influenced by reputation. Now, it’s a Top 25 school, coming in at 24th, and it’s the seventh highest ranked public school in the nation.

“We focus on excellence and low tuition,” said Laura Ann Rosenbury, law dean of University of Florida, who’s been aggressively seeking help from alumni and community members to increase the scholarship pool.  

That’s because low tuition is a vital part of the school’s mission, she said. She wants students to pursue any career of their choosing, and that means they can’t walk out of law school owing big bucks. 

The school is working hard to avoid that. In 2017 it launched the Culverhouse Challenge, spearheaded by alumnus Hugh Culverhouse, a Coral Gables, Fla., attorney. He pledged $1.5 million if it could be matched. And it was. A total of $4.5 million was raised — all of it for scholarships. 

Since then, a number of similar efforts have been undertaken, with the money again going strictly to scholarships. Not only does that help reduce student debt students but it also helps the school attract higher quality students. 

Many alumni are generous because they see the sticker shock of attending law school today, Rosenbury said. They may have gone to law school in the ’70s and ’80s and didn’t face similar financial challenges.

“Our tuition is still very low, but they hear that number, and they say it’s high in comparison,” she said. 

Plus, they no doubt hear about the cost of other law schools. Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville is a for-profit school with an annual tuition of more than $40,000, nearly double that of University of Florida. 

Affordability also allows people who didn’t grow up in affluent households the chance to go to law school, Rosenbury said. That’s a huge deal, particularly for a public flagship university.

Culverhouse also recently gave $1 million for another effort, one to bring more diversity to the law school. Starting next year, it will give full rides to at least five graduates from the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities.

Culverhouse was inspired by the actions of the late John Lewis, the civil rights leader and U.S. Congressman, so the recipients will be called John Lewis Scholars.

Such action is not unusual for the school. Twenty-three percent of the current class are first-generation college grads, and all get a scholarship of some sort, Rosenbury said.

So far, the school has not been financially affected by COVID-19. Its budget has not been cut. State leaders have been consistent in wanting to keep tuition affordable, she said. It’s important, given how students shop around for the best deals. 

When the Culverhouse Challenge started, the school noted that a scholarship to University of Florida helped attract a student who had also been accepted by Columbia Law School, Georgetown University Law Center and NYU Law. 

Rosenbury pointed out that Florida is the nation’s third largest state and that leaders want “a powerhouse law school for a powerhouse state.”

It’s got a Best Value one, for sure. 

Best Value Methodology 

Our Best Value Law Schools ranking is designed to recognize schools whose graduates have excellent chances of passing the bar and getting a legal job without taking on a ton of debt. 

We rank the schools using this formula: ultimate bar passage rate and two-year passage rate (15% of study); modified employment rate (35%); tuition (25%); cost of living (10%); and average indebtedness upon graduation (15%). 

All data comes from the American Bar Association (ABA), with the exception of indebtedness, which comes from U.S. News & World Report. For employment, we used a weighted number, giving more weight to full-time, bar-passage-required jobs. The formula is available at iaals.du.edu/educating-tomorrows-lawyers/projects/numbers/calculator-tool-researchers-and-media.

The ABA’s ultimate bar passage figure that was used is the aggregate rate of the Class of 2017. We used the first-time pass rate for the classes of 2018 and 2019 to arrive at their two-year bar passage rates.