September 19, 2013

BARELY LEGAL: Pricing Out the Public Interest

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By NICHOLAS KAASICK

Cornell Law School is expensive. We have one of the highest tuitions of any law school on earth. It’s time we begin to question whether this tuition is justified. Beyond the money, what is the social cost of our low student-faculty ratios (and low student-dean ratios, for that matter)? It’s time we examine whether we are pricing out all those potential “lawyers in the best sense” who are committed to public interest work.

Why should our tuition be so high? Surely, at a not-for-profit university, we cannot be satisfied with “because it can.” The only reason our tuition could be justifiably so high has to be “because it must.” But must it?

Must our Cornell seal be bronzed each year? Must there be cookies in the lobby every week? Must we be bribed to attend lectures with catered lunch? Must off-campus externships cost the same as attending class? Must a J.D. take three years? Must there be so many deans? Must there be so many other administrative staffers? Must there be so many professors? Must their salaries and benefits be so high?

The answer, to at least some of these questions, may very well be yes, they must. I recognize that challenging faculty salaries and student-faculty ratios borders on sacrilege, but our outrageous tuition demands that we at least give these controversial questions a hard look. In my third year at Cornell Law, having spent a year on the Student Leadership Council, I have not heard why our education must cost so much. The necessity of bronzing the Cornell seal and bribing students to listen to speakers doesn’t appear self-evident, to say the least. All I’ve heard in defense of our ever-increasing tuition comes from an almost word-for-word identical email sent out each spring which notes that tuition must rise (but not as fast as it’s rising for the undergraduates!). Something is uncompelling about such a justification for a tuition increase that by itself constitutes 80 percent of my total undergraduate yearly tuition. Something is also uncompelling about comparing our tuition increase to the increase in the undergraduate tuition.

I fear that this morally-essential question of why attending our law school must cost so much is being given, at best, a cursory examination. Why is there so little dissent from the student body? Perhaps if we are fed cookies and prestige we become grateful, unquestioning and docile? Perhaps soon-to-be Cornell J.D.s are such an unsympathetic bunch that we’re just embarrassed to ask why it costs so much? We should expect more from students trained to be “lawyers in the best sense.” While those of us heading to BigLaw will (thankfully) be able to pay off our loans and begin successful careers, what of our public interest-oriented fellow students? Is it really fair to ignore the question of ever increasing tuition?

I’ll submit a not-so-radical suggestion for consideration. Our government should demand that law schools (and universities in general) justify their tuitions to an oversight body. If a law school’s tuition is unjustified and remedial actions aren’t sufficient, this body ought to be empowered to withdraw a school’s not-for-profit status and/or access to federal student loans. Our government clearly has a strong policy interest in lawyers entering the public interest. Legal representation for the indigent is woefully inadequate. The glacial pace of adjudication in criminal trials is unconscionable. Our society needs well-trained, morally-based lawyers unburdened by enormous student loans to help address these injustices. The status of the University as a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization, is, after all, a benefit conferred and created by the state. It follows that such benefits should come with an obligation to provide education at a cost no higher than necessary. I submit that perhaps those deciding what costs are truly necessary should not themselves be paid by their students’ tuitions. We’ve tried this latter approach, and it’s led to a system in which the cost of higher education is consistently double the inflation rate. Clearly, someone else should be in charge of cost control. If Cornell University objects to such oversight, we can become a for-profit institution that pays taxes and cannot access federally backed loans. I suspect the University will prefer to maintain its not-for-profit status.

In the absence of sound government oversight of not-for-profit organizations, we must demand that some sanity be restored to our tuition planning. We should not accept a tuition increase until we are presented with a comprehensive plan detailing how the University plans to avoid having our tuition increase at double inflation in perpetuity. We owe this much to those wanting to enter public interest law. We owe this much to future Cornellians. We owe this much, this call for sanity, to the future of our fair alma mater. Certainly we, as students, carry no stick as large as the threat of being stripped of tax-exempt status, and our “ask” must be commensurately more modest, but surely it’s reasonable to at least demand a plan. Don’t you agree?

Nicholas Kaasick is a third year law student at  Cornell Law School. He may be reached at nek43@cornell.edu. Barely Legal appears monthly this semester.