With medical students at New York University getting a nice surprise last week when administrators announced the elimination of tuition, the question is whether any law school will do the same.
The answer? “Unlikely.”
OK, it could happen, but legal education experts said they aren’t holding their breath. For one thing, most law schools are more dependent on tuition to cover their operating costs than are medical schools, which typically derive funding from a wider range of sources. And the law schools that are in the best position to eliminate tuition—elite institutions with massive endowments—by and large produce graduates who on the whole already earn high salaries.
“Though it may happen, I doubt a law school will go tuition free,” said Brian Tamanaha, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law who has written extensively about the economics of legal education. “Aside from the deleterious financial consequences such a move would visit on a law school, law graduates in general are not seen sympathetically, unlike medical school graduates, as altruistic people who provide an essential service to the public.”
Indeed, Robert Grossman, dean of NYU’s medical school, called the mounting debt that new doctors face a “moral imperative.” Officials said medical school debt was pushing new doctors into higher-paying specialties and away from essential areas such as primary care, pediatrics and obstetrics. NYU becomes the first major medical school to ax tuition altogether. It has raised $450 million of the $600 million it needs to make the full scholarships available in perpetuity for medical students. Home Depot founder Kenneth Langone contributed $100 million to the initiative.
Michael Orey, a spokesman for New York University School of Law, said Monday that the school has no current plans to eliminate its $63,802 annual tuition. (Tuition at NYU’s medical school was $55,018.)
“We are thrilled that the medical school is able to provide this extraordinary benefit, and share the desire to relieve the debt burden on our students,” he said. “The law school has redirected resources in recent years to make tuition assistance a high priority and it is one of the primary aims of our current capital campaign. Additionally, we provide significant debt relief—about $5 million a year—to graduates who pursue public service, which includes jobs in government agencies and nonprofit organizations, as well as judicial clerkships.”
Medical schools follow a significantly different funding model than do law schools, according to John Prescott, chief academic officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Medical schools are typically funded through a combination of clinical revenue and teaching hospitals, research grants, state funds at public medical schools and philanthropy.
For example, the National Institutes of Health awarded NYU’s medical school nearly $184 million in fiscal year 2018. Johns Hopkins University received the most in NIH grants, at more than $505 million, and all but one of the top 10 grant recipients this year were universities with medical schools. By contrast, law schools typically don’t receive direct grants from the federal government outside the occasional support for specialty initiatives.
Student tuition plays a role, albeit a small one, in medical school budgets, Prescott said, adding that for the majority of medical schools, tuition is probably less than five percent of their budgets. The average medical school budget is about $750 million, he said.
By contrast, law schools on average derived 69 percent of their revenue from tuition during the 2013-14 school year, according to a 2015 report by the American Bar Association’s Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education.
A handful of elite law schools likely have endowments large enough that they could fund free tuition for all, said Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency. Harvard Law School, for example, had a $1.7 billion endowment in 2015, McEntee said.
“It was, at the time, enough to make tuition free for everyone at the law school,” he said. “So the money is there. Harvard could fundraise around this just like NYU did. And they might have some success.”
But McEntee added that eliminating tuition for Harvard law students may not be the best use of these school’s endowment, given that many of the school’s graduates go on to earn high salaries.
A Harvard Law spokeswoman declined to comment Monday on the possibility of eliminating tuition. But Harvard administrators characterized such a move as unsustainable in 2016 when student activists called for the law school to stop charging tuition. The school’s endowment is subject to restrictions, and Harvard already uses those funds to cover what tuition does not, they said, adding that the vast majority of students receive scholarships.
Rather than working to eliminate tuition, law schools should instead focus on how to bring down their operating costs and pass those savings on to students, McEntee said. That would have a bigger impact on the accessibility of legal education than for a handful of elite schools to drop tuition altogether, he said.
“If you have a more sustainable model, one where tuition wouldn’t be approaching $70,000 at some schools, then it gets a lot more affordable for a school to make its tuition free,” McEntee said. “To me, that’s the real question—can we get there?”