Several months ago, my wife and I drove past a big hole in the ground, not far from where we live.
“What’s the sign say?” I asked.
“Don’t go off on a jag,” she said with a slight giggle, “It says ‘Future New Home of American University Law School.”
“Why now?” I blurted out with some salty language that followed.
The next morning I did a bit of research and learned that AU was by no means the only law school to sink huge dollars into a new facility. How could this be?
The law school building boom – and that is a fair characterization – in many ways mirrors the construction frenzy of undergraduate colleges and universities. At a time when there is more than one trillion dollars of outstanding student debt, “institutions of higher learning” continue their building arms race.
The justification is frequently “We’ve got to do it to remain competitive.” But do soaring atriums, student lounges, and workout facilities really promote learning and skills required for today’s job market? And, to be crassly pragmatic, do they enhance the return on investment for the debt ridden student body and family members who are often co-guarantors of financially crippling educational loans?
It’s remarkable – with the exception of a few elite law schools – that there has been any major law school construction after the 2008 financial crisis. After all, that is when the “new normal” began for the legal vertical. True, many remained convinced for a while things would return to the way they were, but as a friend of mine says of bad results, “how’d that work out for you?”
So, with declining enrollment and mind boggling tuition costs – already up approximately 200% during the past 20 years with no discernible change in “product” and a declining average return-on-investment for students – why build now? Add to that a nationwide decline in applications and enrollment, dismal job market, other career opportunities that require neither the financial nor time commitment of law school, and a legal marketplace slashing graduate hiring because they are not “market ready” (translation: clients now refuse to subsidize law firm “on-the-job-training”). One more time with feeling: why are law schools building dazzling new homes?
It’s Not Just A Couple Outlier Schools That Are Building
The list of law schools that have recently built new digs for themselves is long, and the price tags are staggering. Here is a sampling: Boston University Law spent $180 million; Arizona State Law School dropped $129 million; Thomas Jefferson Law School (San Diego) and Syracuse University College of Law both came in at the $90 million. A host of other law schools have recently opened or will soon complete new shrines including: Quinnipiac, Georgia State, the University of South Carolina, the University of Utah, Washburn University, and the aforementioned American University.
What is equally remarkable about the sheer number of new school buildings is that most of them are being built to house many more students than are presently enrolled. The justification for the immense size of these new facilities–some almost double the current enrollment is – to be polite – curious. One Dean said, “We were building for the next half-century.” A President at another University said the new structure was a “sign of commitment” to the law school.
Could they be thinking that “if you build it they will come”– notwithstanding the undeniable weight of the evidence that they are not and likely will not come? This rationale is even more unpersuasive when one considers that several of the proud new law schools homeowners are not exactly household names and whose graduates have among the worst “upside-down” percentages—debt and unemployment?
Some Better ways to Spend Money
There are many better ways for law schools to spend money. These include: tuition reduction, more and larger scholarships, loan workouts and/or forgiveness for graduates who need it most, investment in creating partnerships with the private sector to promote experiential learning during law school and continuing post-graduation, hiring more faculty with hands-on experience, especially in areas where legal practice is moving (business, IT, project management, legal products, etc.), and investing more in student career guidance and training.
While many in the Academy justify new building because it provides “state-of-the art IT” and “hands-on training facilities”, much of that could be achieved – and be more valuable to students –via partnerships with legal service providers, technology companies in the legal vertical, in-house legal departments, Government agencies, and public interest groups. At a time when higher education is moving towards remote learning, how do law schools justify huge expenditures on bricks and mortar, especially since their curricula remain predominantly doctrinally based?
The law school building boom leaves me scratching my head. The timing, assumptions, allocation of resources, and optics are off. How can new, gleaming law school buildings be going up while Brooklyn Law School, following the lead of several UK law schools, is now offering a 15 percent tuition rebate to unemployed graduates?
Imposing edifices can reinforce the power of a brand. But if that brand is already tainted, those gleaming new buildings may become mausoleums, not salvations, for many law schools.
This post originally appeared on Bloomberg BNA on Sept. 23, 2015.