Flat-Rate Law School Tuition?

Articles in Slate and  the Times make a convincing psychological and economic argument against discounting tuition, especially outside of super-elite institutions. The data suggest that schools ought to offer fixed, lower, rates which all students pay equally.  If widely adopted, no-haggle tuition pricing would be both revenue neutral and significantly more transparent than the current system. So why don’t law schools follow the model? Off the top of my head:

  1. Student scholarships are donor-magnets; and
  2. The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Donor preferences would be a tough nut to crack.  In a world of increasingly stretched resources, schools are going to be loath to abandon a tried-and-true way of activating their alumni networks. Except for at those super-elite schools, pitches in support of faculty (scholarly) resources or curricular offerings are often tough sells.  I suppose that donors could be channeled into other kinds of student support, but there’s nothing quite as compelling as helping individuals access legal education.

The second problem is also a doozy.  Look at what happened to J.C. Penny.  However, it’s not as if every day low pricing is impossible.  For instance, if the federal government were to condition aid on granular tuition transparency, I think we’d see uniform pricing rather quickly. To see why, imagine a world where all students’ real costs were knowable. There’d be immediately and power leveling pressure from the student body.  The easiest solution would be to eliminate discounts but charge a lower real rate. However, I’ve not seen proposals on the table to change accreditation in this direction, and the current system is clearly hostile to a no-discount tuition strategy. Thus, we’re going to continue to live in a world where every student coming in the door pays something different.


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2 Responses

  1. brad says:

    Another reason that the argument for undergraduates doesn’t work the same for law schools, is that state institutions with considerably lower tuition play a much smaller role in the law school market. Even more particularly, there are very few equivalents of the bottom tier of state schools which are both relatively inexpensive and relatively easy to get into.

    Which in turn means that low end private law schools have much stronger pricing power than low end private undergraduate schools, and so few (none?) are in the position of Converse College of being unable to charge “list price” to virtually anyone.

  2. Orin Kerr says:

    I think there’s a time element, too. Substantial discounting of tuition for “merit” scholarships is relatively new, and schools may assume that it is a short-term dynamic in response to the rapid decline in applications. If so, it can be phased out when the application numbers stabilize, whereas it is much harder to raise tuition back to where it was before if there is only one tuition rate.