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Fixing Law Schools

Fixing Law Schools

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In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education Review, University of Tennessee law professor Benjamin Barton authored an article, The Law School Crash, subtitled “What’s worse than a decade of financial turmoil? Not learning from it.” Barton’s news isn’t new. In fact, he mentions Brian Tamanaha’s 2012 book, Failing Law Schools, as an early critique of the disparity between the cost of law school and career and salary outcomes. I remember reading it on a flight and the adjacent passenger asked about the book. I explained that Tamanaha was an assistant dean at the Washington University School of Law and he noted that the average debt for a law school graduate was $125,000, but less than half of current graduates subsequently earned salaries high enough to repay it. The passenger replied that he and his wife were both law school graduates and, notably, each held approximately $125,000 in loans. They had both taken jobs with long hours to earn enough to repay their loans and rarely had sufficient time with each other due to their schedules. He added that they were resolved to repay their debt before considering buying a house or starting a family.

Barton cites the American Bar Association (ABA) and other sources that show the peak of law school first-year enrollments at 52,488 in 2010-11, declining to a low of 37,071 in 2015-16 with a minimal increase to 38,283 in the most recent 2019-20 fall semester. He notes that the shrinkage in applicants has increased competition and resulted in more discounts being offered to attract students. In 1999-2000, approximately 58% percent of law students paid full price and, in 2018-2019, only 29% paid full price. In 2010-11, the top 15 law schools were the most generous, offering discounts to 53% of their students and standalone law schools did so to 47% percent of students. By 2017-18, the roles reversed, with the top 15 law schools offering discounts to 62% of students and standalone schools doing so to 71%.

Many law schools have suffered over the last decade, losing an estimated $1.5 billion in annual revenue. Barton maintains that the survivors are reverting to what initially precipitated the crisis. To survive, they made deep cuts to faculty, lowered admissions standards, and raised prices. He offers three suggestions for improvement, noting that law schools should:

  • Lower price and debt levels, i.e. a 2018 Gallup poll which found that only 23% of law school graduates thought their education was worth the cost,
  • Find smart ways to teach technology, i.e. Richard and Daniel Susskind’s book, The Future of the Professions, which predicts that employment for most small firm and solo practitioners will disappear due to improvements in technology, and
  • Embrace new programs but not sell expensive and dubious degrees.

Barton is skeptical that any change will occur because law school faculties are not interested in making their jobs harder. I recall that Tamanaha recommended in his book that law schools eliminate the third year of law school as one that is unnecessary and filled with “fluff” courses, and that the ABA standard of tenured law professors only teaching one course per semester be increased to reduce costs. Neither of those recommendations have been implemented so Barton’s skepticism seems well-placed. If you find his article interesting, he has also written Fixing Law Schools: From Collapse to Trump Bump and Beyond that provides much more data supporting his analysis and recommendations.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who will remain APUS president until his planned retirement in June 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni. In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. Dr. Boston lives in Owings Mills, MD with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.

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