Higher-education cost transparency is all the rage. In a recent article in Slate, Annie Lowery argued that:
“It is true that we have tremendous amounts of data about higher education. But it is also true that too often students end up misled, overwhelmed, or confused attempting to gauge the different options. Big, expensive purchases require smart, educated customers. That is why the government created the new fuel-efficiency labels. It is also why the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is rolling out simplified, standardized home-mortgage forms. It should not, after all, take a Ph.D. in statistics to get through the college application process.”
In general, I absolutely think that law schools ought to compete on the transparency of their disclosures about student job outcomes, and that the ABA’s highest and best accreditation purpose would be to audit such data for its accuracy. However, I thought I’d caution proponents of cost transparency of two specific & unanticipated costs of their proposals.
First, think about what cost transparency entails. To my mind, real law school cost transparency doesn’t mean that we on a clear form provide prospective students a series of blanks: “tuition + anticipated tuition growth” plus “living costs + anticipated cost increases” minus “expected three-year scholarship”. We’d also need to disclose our predictions of the student’s chances on the summer job market — law school cost is for some students significantly defrayed by summer employment. If you look nationally, graduating law student debt has spiked in the last two years. That rise doesn’t follow largely from tuition increases, though that’s part of the story. Rather, it’s the collapse of the firm job market in 2008 -2010 that did the trick: students lost $10-$30,000 of expected income that would have offset or repaid borrowing.
The problem is that although law schools could get a handle on some of these numbers, disclosing them in a way that’s going to meet students’ ever-rising expectations isn’t exactly an easy task. Think about the average administrator in charge of this disclosure — how likely is it that they will be able to do so in a way that meets Lowery’s standard of clarity, accuracy, and replication? Even when they are excellent at their job today, this kind of data-organization and display task would demand a fundamentally new set of skills. Bringing in a new body is a fine idea, although many law schools are operating under hiring freezes to control tuition growth. Moreover, as Gordon Smith observed some years ago with reference to curricular change, legal education reformers often discount opportunity costs severely. So if law schools spend more time on figuring out the expected costs of law school education, they are going to spend less time on something else. (And, likely, less money.) What’s that to be? My guess is: library resources, clinics, and research support. Maybe that’s a worthwhile trade-off, but it strikes me that discussions of cost transparency are really just proxies for complaints about cost, period. Real law school cost will fall if and when the legal job market recovers.