Alternative and Affordable Legal Education: Head for the Hills

The legal profession and academy know the numbers in the enrollment game all too well: down 50 percent in the last few years. The metrics show a number of reasons for the nosedive-lack of jobs after graduation, large student loans, poor morale among students as well as teachers, psychological pressures. But both statistical and empirical observations point to the skyrocketing cost of legal education as the major if not controlling cause. In large urban markets like New York, tuitions have approached or exceeded $50,000 per year, with a monthly cost of living in the $2,000+ range, with the total thus pushing $100,000 annually, $300,000 for a degree and associated requirements (bar exam, job search, clothing, lost income etc.)

Whether viewed favorably or not in the profession’s terms, prospective law students give little thought to less expensive means of funding a J.D. Although costs approach six figures in “top 50” schools (a popular rather than real concept), students often overlook less expensive approaches.

To be sure, a U.S. legal education (disregarding scholarships) will price in the five to six figures. But first-rate education is available at reasonable prices outside schools anointed by US News & World Report—an organization not accredited by any governmental or scholarly body.

Outside the world of name-brand schools, there is a host of high-quality law schools. Many of these are small, state-run, and located in rural areas. These qualities naturally are anathema to any student preparing for a seven-figure career at a law firm in an urban metro area. But their combination of cost and quality makes them worth a careful look. (Perhaps the cadre most resistant to them is the parents, who often pay the tab and covet a prestigious bumper sticker.) For example, a year as a visiting professor at Southern Illinois University Law School in Carbondale, Illinois opened this observer’s eyes to the virtues—as well as affordability—of its educational program. Its students are comparable to those at many much larger institutions (125 students per year). And its cost is accessible to many middle-income families:

TUITION & FEES $18,000

COST OF LIVING-

LIVING EXPENSES     $14,000

MISC.       $1,000

It is important to note that the tuition is based on in-state residence. But an annual lease seems to qualify students in many schools. And by comparison, private law schools are not known for having lower tuition for local students. These kinds of figures are not unique to Carbondale, Illinois. There are dozens of other schools with similar—or even lower—financial and profiles.

Many students are committed to living in an urban area—particularly New York. Carbondale, Illinois (30,000 population; a few malls with movie theaters) obviously is not a substitute for them. On the other hand, in three years it will give students a quality education and an affordable student loan.

More by | Michael Botein Michael Botein , Law.com Contributor
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