Net cost of law school has been flat, could drop

The net cost of law school has not increased since 2010, and experts believe it will soon drop because law schools have slowed tuition increases and are offering more lucrative scholarships to students.

The National Jurist crunched numbers from the American Bar Association to get insight on tuition and debt trends. Net tuition is a good barometer because it is the average tuition rate minus grants and scholarships and adjusted for inflation.

Law schools increased grants and scholarships significantly from 2009-2010 to 2012-2013, the last year for which data is available. In 2009-2010, schools discounted tuition by an average of $5,616 per student. That number increased to $6,085 in 2010-2011, $7,048 in 2011-2012 and $7,764 in 2012-2013.

At the same time, tuition increased more modestly than in prior years. For private schools, tuition rose 13 percent from 2009 to 2012. It had risen 32 percent from 2004 to 2009. Tuition only grew 3 percent from 2012 to 2013. It is expected to grow at a similar rate for 2014, as eight law schools lowered tuition. 

Comparing tuition minus scholarships and adjusting for inflation, net tuition was relatively flat from 2009-2010 to 2012-2013. 

Experts say the amount of discounting increased even more the last two years, but that data is not yet available. If true, the net tuition, adjusted for inflation, should drop. That means the average debt load for graduates will likely drop as well.

Brian Tamanaha, a law professor at Washington University School of Law and author of the book, “Failing Law Schools,” said law schools are using scholarships to compete more than ever to guard their LSAT and GPA profiles. But many schools are also using scholarships simply to fill seats.

“Schools are offering scholarships deeper into the class,” he said. “Before [the drop in applications] you had to be above the median to get a scholarship. That [change] is simply because of the extraordinary decline in applications.”

Tamanaha predicted that law student debt loads will drop for the class of 2016, if not sooner. But, he said, many schools will not be able to maintain the current level of scholarships.

“At some point the schools wont be able to afford to give scholarships deeper into the class and finances will normalize,” he said. “As schools run out of money, offers will settle down to levels we saw before this collapse hit us.”