Paul L. Caron

Monday, May 8, 2023

Dean Rutledge: Law Schools Shouldn’t Blame U.S. News For Their Own Moral Choices

Chronicle of Higher Education:  Law Schools Shouldn’t Blame ‘U.S. News’ for Their Own Moral Choices, by Peter B. (“Bo”) Rutledge (Dean, Georgia):

US News (2023)A fierce debate over law schools’ continued participation in U.S. News has become a microcosm for broader debates over higher-education reform during a period of tremendous disruption.

In that debate, a recent opinion piece by Deans Heather Gerken and Tamara Lawson argues that U.S. News creates “perverse incentives” and has “pernicious effects” that force schools to make bad “policy choices” (“Law Schools Should Abandon Merit-Based Scholarships,” The Chronicle Review, April 13). Those choices include favoring merit-based over need-based financial aid. They contend that “we have reached an inflection point in higher education” and urge all law schools to embrace need-based aid.

I agree with the authors’ effort to support low-income students. Nonetheless, like a handheld flashlight shining in a vast forest, the argument ignores the terrain. It blames the wrong actor, supplies an incomplete account, and elides the importance of moral courage to make hard choices. ...

Blaming U.S. News only distracts the public from holding law schools responsible for their own moral choices — including their choice to increase the cost of attendance, to worsen the student-debt crisis and to become less accessible to low-income students. ...

Overpriced law schools now find themselves in a pickle. Not only have tuition increases outpaced inflation, they have also outstripped the growth rates for both family incomes and law graduates’ starting salaries. Confronted by these economic forces, most firms would reduce their prices and cut costs.

The authors’ proposal represents one type of price cut but avoids any acceptance of responsibility for decades of reckless price increases or any promise to control costs. The American Bar Association has recognized the student debt crisis in legal education, and it can help address that crisis by requiring all law schools to disclose various measures of student debt in their annual 509 reports (just like they presently require disclosure of various measures of student aid).

Every law school dean — indeed, every academic leader — needs moral courage to make hard choices about where to prioritize the next marginal investment. Jobs? Bar passage? Student support? Buildings? Salaries? Tuition discounts? Scholarships? ...

Right now, protesting schools are freed from U.S. News’ alleged stranglehold. If those schools want to help low-income students, then do that: Cut costs and admit low-income students. ...

[T]ackling costs, debt, and student outcomes is a moral imperative for every academic leader— no matter what a magazine may say.

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