Double-digit tuition increases loom for students at some of the country’s top public law schools.

School administrators say that the unusually large tuition hikes for the coming academic year are largely spurred by cuts in public funding — with endowment losses, initiatives to improve their schools and pressure to keep up with competing institutions also playing a part.

Even with the higher tuition costs next year, public schools will remain generally cheaper than their private counterparts. But the shrinking public/private tuition gap has led administrators and professors to worry about whether public institutions are fulfilling their mission of remaining affordable.

“We’re trying to maintain accessibility, but it’s getting harder and harder,” said Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis School of Law, which will raise tuition by 19% for California residents and by 10% for nonresidents. “I fear, given the fees our law students are being charged, [that] affordable public legal education is no longer in existence.”

The recession is having a “much more pervasive effect” on law school budgets than did past recessions, said Susan Westerberg Prager, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS). Specifically, it’s hitting hardest at law schools dependent on state appropriations or revenue from endowments.

Administrators planning substantial tuition increases note that they are putting some of that additional revenue toward financial aid. Even so, the tuition increases are bound to heighten the financial burdens of public law school students, who already graduate with an average of $71,436 in law school debt, according to the latest available statistics from the American Bar Association.

For example:

• In-state students at Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington will pay almost 25% more in tuition than they paid last year, bringing their tuition from just below $20,000 to nearly $25,000.

• Iowa residents will see tuition increase by nearly 20% next year at the University of Iowa College of Law, while out-of-state students will pay an additional 13%.

• Tuition at the University of Colorado School of Law is increasing by 16%, 20% and 12% for in-state 1Ls, 2Ls and 3Ls, respectively.

• Resident students at the University of Texas School of Law will pay 16% more and nonresidents will see tuition go up by nearly 11%.

• Tuition is up 15% for in-state 1Ls at the University of Minnesota Law School, while in-state 2Ls, 3Ls and out-of state students will see increases of nearly 8%.

It’s not yet clear how overall tuition increases this year compare to previous years. The ABA tracks tuition at U.S. law schools but has not yet collected data for the 2009-10 academic year. During the 2008-09 school year, the average public school tuition for resident students grew by 9% to $16,836. The increase was 7% for average out-of-state tuition at public schools and 6% at private law schools. Steadily rising law school tuition doesn’t seem to be dissuading would-be attorneys from applying to law school, however. Law school applications increased 4.3% for the 2009-10 academic year, according to the Law School Admissions Council.

PUBLIC AND PRIVATE FUNDS

Nearly all public law schools rely on a combination of tuition, public money and private donations or revenue from endowments. Public funding has been on the decline for decades at many public law schools, but state funding cuts were especially steep this year as legislators struggled to address deep budget deficits. Some law schools are looking to tuition to help fill those funding gaps.

“We face a cut in state funding, like many other schools, and a decline in the revenue that our endowment produces,” said Kenneth Davis, dean of the University of Wisconsin Law School. “Our tuition differential will account for some of that cut funding.”

The law school will receive approximately $600,000 less in state funding this year — about 5% of its operating budget — and will probably raise tuition by $1,200, Davis said. Despite the budget shortfall, the school did not consider boosting the size of the incoming class to generate more tuition revenue. As at many law schools that are part of a large state system, law school tuition money goes to the overall University of Wisconsin system, and the Board of Regents determines the amount that flows back to the law school. Only the differential — the amount of the annual increase — goes directly to the law school, Davis said. Moreover, the tight legal job market is another strong argument against purposely increasing enrollment. “My feeling is that it would be a poor response to the economic times to increase the class size knowing we already have a difficult time placing the students we have,” Davis said. That said, the law school’s incoming class will be 30 or 40 students larger than normal because an unusually high number of accepted students chose to enroll.

The additional students will place a heavier burden on the law school budget, though administrators haven’t calculated that extra cost, said Associate Dean for Administration Bethany A. Pluymers. Because the law school doesn’t see a specific monetary return from the university on a per-student basis, the added costs must be absorbed in the already established budget. “It reduces the resources available per student,” she said.

The University of Iowa College of Law saw its general fund budget shrink by 7% for the coming year, but that reduction is being cut to 3.2% because of funding from the federal government’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, said Dean Carolyn Jones.

“[The nearly 20% tuition increase for in-state students] is higher than it has been in the past,” Jones said. “It’s an unusual situation all the way around. The size of the cut in state funding was a bit of surprise. In order to maintain our progress, reputation and the strength of our degrees, we needed to find revenue.”

Despite the increase, the school’s $21,432 in-state tuition remains lower than most of the Big Ten schools it considers close competition, Jones said.

NOT SO GOLDEN STATE

Not surprisingly, laws schools in the University of California system are getting hit with deep cuts in funding from the cash-strapped state. Overall, the 10 universities in the system are getting $813 million less from the state this year.

All of the law schools in the highly regarded University of California system are raising tuition — called professional degree fees — by 10% or more. In-state students at University of California, Berkeley School of Law will pay 16% more while out-of-state students pay more than 11% more. University of California at Los Angeles School of Law tuition is going up by nearly 14% for residents and more than 10% for nonresidents. And tuition at the University of California Hastings College of the Law will go up by 12% and 10% for in-state and out-of-state students, respectively.

John Power, the chief financial and administrative officer and at University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, said that he’s still not certain how much less money the school will get from the state this year, but he expects the reduction to be around 20%. Approximately a third of the school’s operating budget comes from public money, he said, compared to about 80% two decades ago.

The school is addressing the anticipated $2.2 million funding deficit by raising student fees, reducing employee compensation and imposing furloughs, among other things. “The students have been concerned and upset, but we’re also increasing financial aid along with fees, and I think a lot of students realize that they don’t want a degree from a law school that is falling behind,” Power said.

The University of California, Davis School of Law will receive $500,000 less from the state this year, said Johnson. “We weren’t expecting a cut of that magnitude,” he said. “State support has dwindled over time, and to stay in operation, the money has to come from somewhere.”

Hastings College of the Law lobbied hard this summer to avoid a proposed cut of nearly $5 million in state funding. Administrators were pleased when that funding cut was reduced to about $1 million, which amounts to a 10% reduction.

“I don’t believe we’ve had a double-digit increase in at least the last five years,” said Mary Hotchkiss, the associate dean for students and academic life at the University of Washington School of Law, where tuition will increase by almost 14% for all students.

Lauren Robel, dean of Indiana Uni­ver­sity Maurer School of Law – Bloomington, told The Indianapolis Star that a shrinking endowment, higher fixed expenses and static state funding all are contributing to school’s higher tuition this year.

Although students aren’t pleased about the tuition increase, some see it as the price of their school remaining competitive, said Amir Ali, a 3L and president of the student bar association at the Indiana law school. The school rose from No. 36 to No. 23 in this year’s U.S. News and World Report rankings. “In-state students were paying $14,000 in 2006 and now it’s around $25,000,” Ali said. “No one’s happy about it. There is a line of people who don’t like it at all, and there’s a line of people who say, ‘This might be worth it if it helps us find a job.’ ”

However, Ali was skeptical that the school’s rising reputation and rank will vastly improve students’ job prospects in the immediate future, given the upheaval in the legal industry. Prager, of the AALS, said the desire to rank high on the U.S. News and World Report rankings is also motivating schools to look for revenue.

Some public law schools hope to close the tuition disparity between in-state and out-of-state students, which is contributing to higher in-state tuition increases. In 2004, the University of Colorado School of Law adopted a goal of achieving tuition parity for in-state and out-of-state students by 2017, said director of operations and financial management Dennis Russell. Most students achieve resident status in Colorado after their first year of law school anyway, so administrators figured the tuition rates should be similar. Therefore, Colorado resident tuition is climbing between 12% and 16%, while nonresident tuition is growing by 3%.

The University of Minnesota Law School is trying to bring resident and nonresident tuition closer by upping tuition the most for resident 1Ls, said Patrice Schaus, assistant dean of administration and finance. “State support is shrinking for the law school,” Schaus said. “We’re raising tuition the most for students who haven’t paid tuition before. We wanted to mitigate the increase as much as we could for the students already in the program.”

A FEW EXCEPTIONS

Not every top public law school is significantly raising tuition rates this year. The University of Michigan Law School and the University of Virginia School of Law are raising tuition for their students by 4% and 5%, respectively. Unlike most other public law schools, however, Michigan and Virginia largely follow the private school funding model — with heavy reliance on tuition, endowments and donations. In fact, Virginia’s law school receives no public funding, said Stephen Parr, associate dean for management and finance. The school moved away from state funding in the early 2000s, with the idea that it would have more autonomy and wouldn’t be subject to funding cuts by state legislators, Parr said. Similarly, only about 3% of Michigan’s law school budget comes from public funds, said Dean Evan Caminker.

Both schools said their percentage tuition increases for the 2009-10 school year are lower than in the previous year. “We recognized that the students are having a tough time and we wanted to help them out,” Parr said.

Tuition dollars have become an increasingly important funding source for public law schools over time, said Rachel Moran, a law professor at Berkeley and a founding member of the faculty at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. The decrease in public investment has helped erode the idea that public law schools are intended to graduate attorneys who will stay in their state and contribute through taxes and civic involvement, said Moran, who is the president of the AALS. Instead, many students now see choosing their law school as a business transaction. “There has been a gradual process of redefining responsibility for paying for higher education,” Moran said. “The idea is, ‘We don’t feel it’s our job to pay for a public university anymore — at least not most of it.’ ”

But simply relying on tuition increases to fund operations is not a “limitless strategy,” especially at public schools where tuition is nearly comparable to private schools, Moran said. Higher costs may push out the very people public law schools were intended to teach, Prager said. “As fees become a larger and larger part of law school funding, you begin to worry about what happens to our broad middle class and their access,” Prager said. “Those students have depended on the easy access of student loans, and now people are much more concerned about taking on those loans.”

Johnson, the dean at U.C. Davis, fears that climbing tuition at public schools will result in decreased diversity as well as decreased job options for students who can’t afford to take lower-paying public interest positions because of sky-high debt. “Students, obviously, are having a harder time paying for their legal education, and the job market has gotten tougher,” Johnson said. “They’re starting to behave more like consumers.”

That might not be a bad thing given the dismal job market, said Ali, the Indiana University law student. “If law schools are so much more expensive, maybe people will think twice about going,” he said.

Karen Sloan can be contacted at karen.-sloan@incisivemedia.com.