Should Wisconsin Stop Subsidizing Law School Tuition?

In a comment on an earlier post, Daniel Suhr suggested that in this time of economic downturn the state of Wisconsin should consider eliminating the tuition subsidy that it provides for students at the University of Wisconsin Law School. As he points out, virtually of all the graduates of the law school begin their careers making higher salaries than the average Wisconsin resident and thus are arguably in a better position to pay for their legal education than the state’s taxpayers. Marquette would obviously benefit from such a policy change, but the proposal has merit above and beyond what it would do to restore the competitive balance between the state’s two law schools.

There is also nothing particularly radical about such a proposal. In fact, several highly regarded state law schools in different parts of the country have already all but abandoned subsidies for in-state students.

At the University of Virginia, where I am currently teaching as a visiting professor, out-of-state students pay tuition of $43,800, while Virginia residents pay almost as much, $38,800 (or 88.6% of out-of-state tuition). The gap is even narrower at the University of Michigan, where the out-of-state/in-state differential is $46,010 vs. $43,010 (or 93.5%). The University of Minnesota is somewhat more generous to Minnesota residents, but such students still pay 73% as much as out-of-staters ($25,324 vs. $34,726).
In contrast, in-state law students at the University of Wisconsin pay only $16,426 in tuition, which is just 45% of the $36,350 paid by most out-of-state students. (Because of the reciprocity compact, Minnesota residents attending the UW law school are charged $26,342.)

If in-state students at the University of Wisconsin Law School were required to pay the 93.5% of out-of-state tuition paid by Michigan residents at the University of Michigan, Marquette would actually have a slight tuition advantage ($32,410 vs. $33,987).

As Daniel Suhr also noted, former state representative Frank Lasee proposed several years ago that the state stop subsidizing public legal education. The idea failed to take hold at that time, but conditions may be right to revive the idea.

Tuition figures for the five law schools mentioned in this post are taken from the law schools’ web pages.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Ed Fallone

    Marquette Law School might suffer if the University of Wisconsin raised its tuition. Legal education might be seen as a luxury good, where high price and exclusivity actually work in favor of Marquette. If Wisconsin’s tuition were slightly less (or even slightly more) than Marquette’s, consumers would make their purchase decision on the basis of quality alone. Marquette might be better off under the current pricing structure, where high barriers to entry prevent new law schools from starting, and where the only two market participants tacitly target consumers of distinct economic status.

  2. Bryan Ward

    So if Marquette raised tuition another 10k, would it be even more attractive? The underlying assumption seems to be that some students choose Marquette over UW because Marquette costs more; I doubt that. In the overpopular US News rankings, UW is ranked significantly higher. A feeling of elitism seems more likely to be attached to the higher ranked school, not the more expensive one. I’ve never sensed an elitist attitude from someone who attends a more expensive school, but I sure have sensed it from a few people that attend or attended a “Top Tier” school. I would question the ability of someone to make the requisite LSAT scores if they would consider a lower ranked school superior to a higher ranked school solely because the lower ranked school is much more expensive. Inasmuch as higher ranked schools correlate to higher earning potential, that elitism would be short-lived.

  3. Matthew Fernholz

    I agree with Bryan on this issue. Prof. Fallone, I’m missing your argument as to how higher tuition attracts better students. Isn’t that why we offer scholarships to students with high LSATs and GPAs?

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