MONEY College

Would Your Tuition Bills Go Up If College Athletes Got Paid?

Leon Halip—Getty Images Drake Johnson (#20) of the Michigan scores against Indiana on November 1 , 2014 in Ann Arbor.

As the college football season heats up, the action far from the field could eventually raise the costs of fielding teams.

Wins by college athletes in courtrooms and boardrooms could end up in losses for their non-athlete classmates.

High-profile legal cases and NCAA policy changes are likely to boost the cost of fielding big-time athletics programs. And students—even those who never attend a single college basketball or football game—may have to foot the bill, higher-education finance experts say.

How the Game Is Changing

The most sweeping changes to college sports could come from an antitrust suit against the NCAA pending in New Jersey, in which attorney Jeffrey Kessler contends that college athletes should be paid as much as the market dictates—a salary, essentially. A win for Kessler, who filed the suit on behalf of former Clemson football player Martin Jenkins, likely would spark bidding wars among universities for top recruits by eliminating limits on such payments.

The case is likely to go to trial next fall.

“I do believe that if the Kessler case wins, that could break the bank for the NCAA as we know it today,” says William Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system and co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. “This would become like a mini NFL draft. It would become a free market.”

Other factors also promise to change the rules of the game.

A federal judge in August ruled in favor of former college athletes, led by UCLA star basketball player Ed O’Bannon, in an antitrust suit against the NCAA that could lead to back payments for as many as 100,000 former athletes and additional scholarship money for future ones.

The ruling came less than five months after the National Labor Relations Board concluded Northwestern University football players were, essentially, university employees, and could unionize.

Some schools have already hinted they would pay athletes thousands of dollars more per year after NCAA officials—independent of any lawsuits—said they might allow universities to cover athletes’ entire cost of attendance.

Who Will Foot a Bigger Bill?

Only a handful of NCAA Division I schools have self-sustaining athletics programs—just 20 of the nearly 130 schools in the top-flight Football Bowl Subdivision, for example—so most universities subsidize those departments, even in a pre-Kessler, pre-O’Bannon world. At public institutions in particular, part of that subsidy is drawn from student fees.

According to the Knight Commission, growth in athletics funding at Division I schools outpaced academic spending from 2005 to 2012. Students at some schools pay $1,000 in athletics fees alone.

Changes to how student-athletes are paid could lead some schools, stuck with nowhere else to turn, to raise other students’ fees. Universities and colleges could also scale back their athletics programs to cut costs. That “would be the rational approach,” Kirwan said. “But when it comes to college athletics, rationality doesn’t often prevail,” he said. “There are so many societal pressures.”

Research shows that some students don’t even know their fees are already paying for athletics. At Ohio University, for instance, 41% of revenue from the general fee of $531 per quarter for full-time students in 2010 went to intercollegiate athletics, but 54% of students didn’t know it, according to a survey by the nonprofit Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

Dividing the $765 per year they paid for athletics through the fee by the number of games the average Ohio University student attended, the center calculated that students were paying the equivalent of more than $130 per athletic event they actually watched in person.

Eighty-one percent said they opposed raising the amount of their fees that went to the athletics program, or wanted it reduced.

If the Kessler lawsuit succeeds, “The institutions that rely primarily on student fees are going to have to make a decision about whether they’re going to try to keep up,” says Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission. “When you have schools with $5 million for their entire athletic budget trying to compete with schools that have $5 million coaches, it’s going to strain at some point.”

The Pressure to Stay in the Game

Even some schools in the “Big 5” conferences—the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-12—where football and basketball bring in big bucks will have trouble maintaining their programs if bidding for athletes takes off, experts said. Schools on the fringes of big-time sports success, such as UC Berkeley, Rutgers, Northwestern, and Indiana, would have tough decisions to make about whether to pass on costs to students, says Murray Sperber, a UC Berkeley professor who has written several books about the role of college sports.

The most likely outcome, Sperber says, would be for at least some of those universities to drop out of the big-time sports world by eliminating athletics scholarships or otherwise scaling back sports programs rather than risking protests by paying athletes and charging students more. But some colleges in mid-tier conferences will probably choose to stay in the bidding game, he says.

“You think of it as a big poker game where the stakes keep going up,” Sperber says. “The students in trouble potentially are those at schools beyond the Big 5, because they’ll have to decide whether to stay in the poker game.”

No Price Tag on School Spirit

Students at some big-time Division I schools said athletic success is important not just for the campus but also for the community. The University of Kentucky basketball program, for example, is part of the school’s and the state’s identity, says Jacob Ingram, president of that university’s student body.

“One of the things the state of Kentucky identifies with most is the Big Blue Nation,” says Ingram, a senior from Nicholasville, Kentucky. “What a great way to leverage our brand and share the rest of what the university has to offer.”

At Rutgers, which is in its first year in the Big Ten, the athletics department has taken on new importance with its climb into the Big 5 ranks. Few students seem to mind paying for that prominence, says senior Brian Link, and even fewer would want to see the school to roll back the affiliation.

“Given the state of where our athletic program is, I think if we have a de-emphasis on athletics a lot of people wouldn’t be too happy,” says Link, from Sayreville, N.J. “That’s where a lot of our school pride comes from—our athletic program. A lot of people in New Jersey root for Rutgers because there aren’t other big-time programs here.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

MONEY College

5 Signs Your College is in Serious Financial Trouble

Academic building with "Going out of Business" sign on door
Gregory Olsen/Getty Images—iStock (sign)

An increasing number of schools are unable to balance their books. Make sure yours is not one of them.

When Corinthian Colleges Inc. agreed in July to sell off or close nearly all of its 107 campuses, it left 72,000 students wondering about their futures—and whether they should have seen the writing on the wall.

Today, with more colleges and universities than ever having trouble making ends meet, experts are urging students to pay closer attention to warning signs. “In this day and age, when there’s so much at risk, it doesn’t hurt to do some legwork and investigate,” says Mike Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).

When colleges close, students face the wrenching process of having to find another place to continue their higher educations, often in the middle of semesters; plus, they may wind up tangled in the red tape of student loan paperwork and the often unsuccessful effort to transfer academic credits. If credits won’t transfer—and they often don’t—those students face the prospect of repeating course work they’ve already completed, which prolongs the time they spend in college and the amount it costs them. Alumni, meanwhile, see the value of their hard-won degrees decline.

Measures to protect students take different forms, depending on the nature of the school. A for-profit college like Corinthian, for example, must disclose serious issues to investors and the federal government. In January, Corinthian filed a regulatory report acknowledging that the federal government was preparing legal action against the company.

“But colleges are very far down the vortex of the funnel by the time problems are publicly acknowledged,” Reilly says.

So you’ll want to keep up with the early warning signs. Here are five to watch for:

1. The accreditors are circling. Most reputable colleges and universities are overseen by regional accreditors, which keep an eye on schools’ academic and financial health.

When City College of San Francisco’s budget fell apart, for instance, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, stepped in and ordered the community college to close. That decision is on hold while a court battle proceeds.

Accreditors give schools several rounds of warnings before taking the rare step of ordering them to close. It’s important for students to know the difference between an early warning and more serious sanctions, says Mary Ellen Petrisko, president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), which accredits four-year schools in California and Hawaii and other Pacific islands.

“Students should not panic when they see there’s some sort of challenge to the institution,” Petrisko says. “Institutions go through challenges all the time.”

Accreditors like WASC post warnings and other actions after each meeting. The documents can be helpful for students who want to keep track of their schools’ financial health.

2. The credit rating agencies are raising flags. Another resource to pay attention to is the credit-rating agencies, such as Moody’s, which warn bond investors about at-risk schools. Among the schools that have failed Moody’s smell test is New York’s Yeshiva University, which was downgraded to junk-bond status after a series of financial problems.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander,Yeshiva’s vice president for university and community life, says some students had expressed concerns about their financial aid. But he added that there was no threat to scholarships or academics.

3. The D.O.E. gives the school poor marks. The U.S. Department of Education also provides a measure of schools’ financial strength through its annual “financial responsibility composite scores,” on which a score of less than 1.0 indicates problems.

4. There’s talk of a merger. Several colleges and universities have tried to stave off extinction by merging with other schools. Some mergers work out, but others fail and leave students marooned and without transferrable credits.

A merger “to me seems like a very tenuous strategy,” AACRAO’s Reilly says. “That seems like a trigger in my mind. I’d get a copy of my official transcripts at that point.”

5. The administration won’t come clean. Students at shaky colleges should press their student leaders to keep a close eye on the school’s future, says Reilly. A school that is confident it’s on the right track should have no trouble communicating details to students, he adds.

“One of the things is for students to look at whether an institution is being realistic about its future,” Reilly says. “Once a school closes, your options become a little more limited. I would start asking questions about what the plan is for the institution. If they’re doing nothing but making assurances to students, I’d be concerned.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

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MONEY College

Degrees on the Cheap! Some Colleges Now Let You Pass a Test to Earn a B.A.

rafal—Getty Images Scantron Optical Scan Exam and Pencil

A handful of schools are letting mid-career folks place out of classes based on exams testing their knowledge. For some, these programs offer a faster, cheaper way to a diploma.

Think you know as much as a college graduate but never got a degree? More colleges and universities are giving you the chance to prove it—and to get that degree in the process.

A small but growing number of schools are letting students skip straight to final exams and earn academic credit in subjects they know well, often from years working in related fields. Some students can complete their bachelor’s degrees this way in a matter of months, usually online, and save thousands of dollars in the process by avoiding superfluous courses covering material they already know.

Take Sara Jones, a 32-year-old court clerk in Tucson, Arizona, who went into the working world straight out of high school before finally deciding to go back to college to improve her chances at at promotion. “I heard from a supervisor that it would be advantageous, if I wanted to move up at all, to get a [bachelor’s] degree,” says Jones, who had an associate’s degree before starting at a Northern Arizona University program that let her cash in her experience for credit.

As in similar so-called competency-based programs, Northern Arizona lets students take exams to prove how much they know. Because she had the ability to test out of classes, Jones is only nine months into the program yet expects to finish by early next year.

Testing your way to a degree is not only faster than taking the conventional route. It’s much, much cheaper. Students in these programs pay a flat amount for a fixed period of time. At Northern Arizona, a six-month subscription costs $2,500, including all books and materials. That means Jones would pay a maximum of $7,500 to finish her degree, thousands less than most universities charge for traditional programs. “I’m not 100% sure I’ll use the degree, so it’s hard to talk myself into $40,000 to $60,000 in debt,” she says.

A growing trend

The idea for competency-based programs was pioneered by Western Governors University, a nonprofit, online school founded in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors. The university offers six-month subscriptions for $3,000, a price that has not increased since 2008, says WGU President Robert Mendenhall. A handful of students have finished a bachelor’s degree in a single six-month period, Mendenhall says.

Since WGU began offering the program, other schools have followed.

They include traditional nonprofit schools such as Northern Arizona University ($2,500 for six months), Southern New Hampshire University ($2,500 per year), and University of Wisconsin ($2,250 for three months; other tuition options available) as well as for-profit universities such as Capella and Argosy.

A growing need

The trend toward competency-based degrees is a nod to economic realities, said Cathy Sandeen, vice president for educational attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education. Only a quarter of U.S. students, she said, follow the traditional college path: entering as freshmen immediately following high school and attending full-time until graduation.

A Georgetown University report estimated that 65% of U.S. jobs will require some college education by 2020—and that the country will fall 5 million workers short of that.

“Right now you can see there is a gap,” Sandeen says. “We need to educate more people quickly. We have a large percentage of students in this country who are nontraditional students. Those students have needs.”

Competency-based programs are perfect for older students who are daunted by the prospect of attending college for four or more years in order to advance their careers, adds WGU’s Mendenhall. At that school, the average student is 37.

“Frankly their jobs are either disappearing or they’re stuck in a job where they have no chance of advancement,” Mendenhall says. “We free students up to learn what they don’t know. It makes a lot of sense for people who have been in the work force and gained competencies.”

But it’s not right for everyone

Thinking of taking advantage of one of these programs? Keep in mind that there are often some caveats.

WGU, for example, only accepts students who agree to attend full time.

Meanwhile, Southern New Hampshire University offers its competency-based bachelor’s programs only to employees of companies that have partnered with the school. It has about 55 partners so far, including McDonald’s, the Gap, and Panera, says Kristine Clerkin, executive director of the university’s College for America program.

Students should carefully look into programs that interest them, experts say, to see whether the curriculum has been approved by regional accreditors, whether they have knowledgeable professors on hand to offer help, and, if needed, whether federal financial aid is available.

Some schools are still figuring out how to match the programs with guidelines that allow students to use federal loans and scholarships. Regulators have been reluctant to give federal financial aid for such unconventional programs, though they’re starting to bend; students at Capella and Southern New Hampshire can now get government aid. So can those at Northern Arizona.

Most importantly, make a call to your human resources departments—and that of one or two other companies where you’d like to work, says Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission, a Chicago-based accreditor. “You’re going to want to know whether this degree is going to be recognized by the employers that interest you,” Manning said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

More stories from The Hechinger Report:

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Needing revenue, old universities open new campuses where the students are

MONEY Student Loans

Finally, More Ways to Refinance Student Loans

Thought you couldn’t do anything about that debt? Think again.

UPDATED June 11, 1:30 pm

Borrowers routinely refinance mortgages and other loans when interest rates drop. So why not student loans?

Refinancing options for student-loan debt have been hard to come by, but a handful of promising developments are giving borrowers better chances of climbing out from under the $1 trillion owed by former students for their college costs.

President Obama this week vowed to expand a program limiting repayment of federal student loans to 10% of a borrower’s income, and the U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would give more protection to students who use private loans.

“We want more young people becoming teachers and nurses and social workers,” Obama said Monday while announcing the expansion of the Pay As You Earn program. “We want young people to be in a position to pursue their dreams. And we want more young people who act responsibly to be able to manage their debt over time.”

But some in the private sector are stepping up as well.

While it is still difficult to refinance through big banks, a handful of newer, more innovative startups have figured out a way to make life easier for student borrowers while still making a profit for themselves.

Now that it is getting easier to repay federal student loans, a growing number of private lenders are offering new ways to ease repayment of high-interest private educational loans as well.

One company, called Pave and based in New York, essentially uses crowdfunding to buy out existing loans, which are then repaid based on the borrower’s income.

Even without interest, Pave loans end up costing borrowers about the same as other loans because of fees—a $25,000 loan, for example, costs $35,212 to repay, compared to $35,329 for a private loan with 7.32% interest—but the company allows more flexibility and forgiveness than most banks.

For example, if students (Pave calls them “talent”) go to graduate school or make less than one and a half times the poverty level, their payments can be deferred, something conventional lenders mostly don’t allow. Repayment rates vary with each borrower, depending on their profession and other factors.

SoFi, a San Francisco company, says it saves borrowers who refinance their loans an average of $9,400 over 10 years by offering low fixed-rate and variable interest and career coaching, but its loans are limited to “highly qualified” graduates and do not include the same flexibility that Pave does—except for a six-month forbearance for borrowers trying to set up their own companies, though interest continues to accrue during that time.

Other startups also are designed to save money for “high-quality” borrowers. Founded by former Google employees, Upstart considers which school a borrower attended, academic performance and work history before providing low-interest loans to students it considers good bets. The company’s backers include Google’s Eric Schmidt and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

And CommonBond allows some borrowers with MBA, law, medical and engineering graduate degrees to save thousands, with 10-year rates as low as 5.99%.

This new attention to the student-loan market isn’t particularly surprising. Two-thirds of students at four-year private, nonprofit universities and colleges take out loans, and more than half of students at public institutions, the U.S. Department of Education reports. The proportion of all students who borrow is up 11 percentage points since 2000, and their average debt has risen 36%, to $6,800. At private, for-profit colleges and universities, it’s $8,400.

Yet repayment terms are extremely rigid. Only in rare cases can student loans be forgiven, even in bankruptcy. And the recession made things worse, leaving student borrowers with far fewer refinancing options than holders of mortgages and other types of loans, said Rory O’Sullivan, deputy director of Young Invincibles, an advocacy group representing 18- to 34-year-olds.

“The private loan industry pretty much dried up,” O’Sullivan said. “It can be pretty challenging, and it’s not guaranteed that everyone is going to qualify.”

About 10% of the 4.7 million students who graduated with federal loan debt in 2011 had defaulted by 2012, meaning they didn’t make any payments for at least nine months, the government reports.

That’s why most of the new, lower-cost lenders are only going after students they consider sure bets.

Darien Rowayton Bank refinances graduate-school loans, for example, specifically those from MBA, law, medical, nursing, pharmacy, and engineering programs. With fixed rates as low as 3.5%, the bank’s loans are among the cheaper options on the market.

Also for borrowers with graduate-school loans, CommonBond refinances at interest rates as low as 5.99%. Using that rate, a borrower with $100,000 in debt and a 7.9% rate would save more than $15,000 over a decade with a CommonBond loan.

Federal loans are usually better deals than private ones, but many borrowers don’t know how to have them delayed, lowered, or entirely forgiven—or even that those alternatives exist.

Federal loans allow early repayment without penalty, saving money on interest, and deferments, which freeze principal and interest payments for students who stay in college or enroll in graduate school at least half time, are unemployed, or serve in the military.

There also is an income-based repayment program, called Pay as You Earn, available since 2012 and under which federal student-loan borrowers can cap their monthly payments at 10% of their income and have their loans forgiven altogether after 20 years. But fewer people know about, and take advantage of, this program than are estimated to be eligible.

Graduates employed full-time for at least 10 years in public service or government jobs or by nonprofit organizations can have their federal loans forgiven altogether. So can students enrolled at a university or college that closes, and, under new rules, borrowers with disabilities.

With any refinancing, the small print is important, experts said.

“You want to look at disclosures, whether it’s fixed-rate or variable, whether there’s a balloon payment,” said Deanne Loonin, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. “People really have to exercise caution.”

Some bigger banks will consolidate student loans so borrowers can make one payment per month, but refinancing is harder to come by at those banks. The same goes for credit unions, although they’re sometimes easier to work with and may be willing to discuss refinancing with members.

Refinancing student loans into a home equity loan is also risky, said Rohit Chopra, the student-loan ombudsman for the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “Your rate may be lower, but it puts your home at risk.”

And home equity loans lack the tax advantages student loans have, he said.

Those looking to restructure their private loans should consider credit unions and startups, Chopra said, especially given the dearth of other options.

“I think many of the existing lenders are reluctant to offer student loan refinancing,” he said. “In some ways, (refinancing) is reducing their own profit margins.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

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TIME Education

This Program Improved College Graduation Rates. So Why Was It Abandoned?

The elimination of Pell grants for summer classes has left a hole for many students

Summer school was boosting college graduation rates—but not anymore.

By the time Leah Stone got her bachelor’s degree this spring from New Jersey’s Montclair State University, her four-year higher education had stretched to six years. It would have taken even longer had she not been able to stay in school during the summers. An unexpectedly popular experiment allowed Stone and other students to use federal Pell Grants to pay for summer classes.

But the program ended after the summer of 2011. And just as policymakers try to speed up the pace at which students get through college, the principal federal financial-aid program no longer covers courses taken in the summer. It’s a conundrum in which the government wants to increase the number of people with university and college degrees, higher-education analyst Sandy Baum said, while at the same time telling students that “If you take more [credits] during the summer, we’re not going to help you.”

Congress decided that the two-year experiment with making Pell grants available for summer classes was too expensive, and President Barack Obama agreed to eliminate it. That saved up to $8 billion per year, the U.S. Department of Education said at the time.

Now lawmakers are considering bringing back the summer Pell grants in some form. But they’re also struggling to keep up with increases in tuition that have propelled the annual cost of Pell grants for the traditional academic year above $33 billion.

“There’s pretty bipartisan support for the Pell program overall,” said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. But before expanding it again, Kline said, Congress needs to find ways to deal with “incredible increases” in tuition.

A group of Democratic senators led by Mazie Hirono of Hawaii has introduced a bill to restore summer Pell Grants. Among other options being discussed by the House education committee is a “Pell Well” of funds from which students could withdraw over the course of their educations, regardless of the time of year.

The debate comes against a backdrop of evidence that taking summer courses improves a student’s chances of finishing college.

Students who enrolled in summer classes were three times more likely to finish their degrees, according to a 2009 study by researchers at California State University, Sacramento, though the study noted that summer students often are more motivated to graduate than others to begin with. And community colleges surveyed by a coalition of researchers said the Pell experiment succeeded at boosting summer enrollments at their campuses.

Advocates for summer Pell grants argue it’s unrealistic to assume all 18-year-olds graduate from high school and go to college for four years, as may have once been true. In reality, they said, students often work for several years before or during college, and many take closer to six years to graduate. Forty-four percent of students take more than six years to earn degrees, or drop out altogether, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

Summer courses also are an important piece of the higher-education puzzle for the increasing number of students who are older, raising families, and holding jobs, said Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

“Higher education has changed pretty dramatically in the past decade,” Draeger said. “We’re talking about courses that don’t run on traditional schedules. Year-round Pell helps get at that.”

It also helps students at public universities like Montclair, where budget cuts have made it harder to get into courses in the fall and winter/spring semesters, Stone said.

“The university is not equipped to have students finish in four years,” said Stone, a board member of the U.S. Student Association. “There will be a class you’re required to take, but it’s only offered once a year and it has a 30-student limit.”

Financial-aid officers at campuses across the United States said the short-lived summer Pell Grants were well-used. As many as 1.2 million students paid for summer classes with the scholarships in 2011 alone, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Although Pell grants—which this year maxed out at $5,645 annually—usually do not come close to paying the full price of tuition and other expenses, financial-aid directors said they often mean the difference between attending and dropping out of school for eligible students.

What’s happened in the summers since the Pell grants ended puts the picture in sharp focus, said Heather Nardello, the associate financial-aid director at the University of California, Merced, where 60 percent of the students are eligible for Pell awards.

“We always see a number of students drop classes [in the summer] because they don’t have the money to pay for them,” Nardello said.

Even without the grants, she said, about a third of the university’s students take summer courses, using loans or their own savings. “I think it’s still doable for students to get out in four years without summer classes,” Nardello said, “but it definitely helps.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

TIME Education

What Law Schools Can Teach Colleges about Lowering Tuition

Administrators are being forced to cut prices as fewer students apply to law school, thanks to fewer jobs in legal, but the rate of tuition increases at other colleges and universities shows no sign of slowing down

Two years into his presidency at Roger Williams University, Donald Farish still could not understand why its law school was charging students $41,400 a year. With law schools seeing huge declines in applicants as legal jobs dried up, something needed to be done. “It was time we confronted the reality,” Farish said.

So the law school slashed its tuition by 18 percent this year, adding Roger Williams to a long list of law schools trying to bring back students by doing something extraordinary with their prices: lowering them.

Law schools at public universities dropped their median tuition by an average of 5% in 2011 and another 8% in 2012, according to the American Bar Association, as private law school tuition increased by an annual average of only 4%, the lowest in 26 years. This followed a staggering drop in the number of applicants in each of the past three years. In 2004, according to the Law School Admission Council, more than 100,000 people applied to law schools; last year 59,400 did. It’s little wonder when there are few jobs for graduates to take. “We’re in an unprecedented time,” said Judith Areen, a former Georgetown University law dean who now directs the Association of American Law Schools. “There’s been almost a freeze in lawyer hiring.”

The downturn has forced law schools to offer discounts unlike any seen before. Pennsylvania State University has offered Pennsylvania residents annual $20,000 tuition discounts at its Dickinson School of Law, cutting tuition nearly in half. The University of Iowa reduced fall 2014 tuition by more than 16% for most law students, and Ohio Northern University law students will pay nearly $9,000 less next fall than they did this year. New York’s Brooklyn Law School this month announced it would reduce tuition by 15% in 2015. The universities of Massachusetts and Maryland have frozen tuition in the past two years.

The hefty discounts appear to be working, for some. Applications at Iowa have increased by more than 70% over this point last year, said the dean, Gail Agrawal. The boost is a relief for the school, which saw a 40% drop in its number of first-year law students from 2012 to 2013. “I think we became the greatest value ever,” Agrawal said. “If you’re a public (university), you do have to worry about issues like access and affordability. We’d been thinking about it for a while. It’s a philosophical question for the university.”

Iowa’s decision was among the reasons Ben Gillig chose to go there next fall. A doctoral student at Iowa, Gillig said he looked at other law schools but was swayed, in part, by the tuition cut. “I wanted something that wouldn’t add much to my debt level,” he said. “I am a little surprised it’s not a broader trend [to cut tuition]. I certainly think it will be in the years ahead.”

And yet overall, college tuition keeps on rising. Which raises the questions: If law schools can reduce their tuition, why can’t other parts of higher education? And do institutions only lower their prices when demand falls?

“I don’t think it’s the case that law schools can do it and colleges can’t,” said Charles Clotfelter, a Duke University economist. “It’s that law schools have done it and colleges have not.” Farish agreed. There is no reason law schools and undergraduate schools alike can’t find ways to save students money, he said. Roger Williams has also frozen tuition for undergraduates, keeping it at $29,976 annually.

“A lot of schools are being, frankly, unimaginative,” Farish said. “It’s abundantly clear that the rising costs of the past 20 years have collided with the economic realities. At the risk of indicting an entire industry, I think we’ve been kind of lazy in our thinking. We always just pass on the costs to students and their families.”

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Some small colleges, where even minor enrollment declines can have dramatic effects on budgets, have, like law schools, slashed their sticker prices. Converse College in South Carolina, for example, has cut tuition by 43% for next year.

But few major colleges and universities have cut tuition for undergraduates, which continues to increase above the rate of inflation. Nor has every law school felt comfortable reducing prices. Deans at law schools nationwide said cutting prices would require them to trim student services and academics, both of which weigh heavily in all-important rankings.

Rather than reduce tuition, New York’s Hofstra University cut the size of the entering class at its law school from 320 to 200. Its dean, Eric Lane, who called this “the worst time in history” for law schools, said it wouldn’t have been able to maintain its quality if it had cut tuition, which is $49,154 this year and will rise about 2% in the fall. “It’s a difficult choice we have to make,” Lane said. “I don’t know how schools have cut their tuition. We don’t have that flexibility.”

And at the University of San Francisco, law school tuition will rise 2.9%, to $45,462, in the fall. It will be the smallest increase in the past 20 years, said John Trasviña, the dean, and the school could go no further. “We considered it and found we could not do it,” he said, citing rising salary and infrastructure costs. “You never want to raise tuition, but we had to.”

Cutting prices often comes with consequences. While some schools are able to streamline administrative costs to compensate, others lay off employees or increase class sizes. For many law schools, the decision comes down to their relationship with a parent campus. Iowa, for example, would not have been able to cut law tuition without financial support from the university, Agrawal said.

Several deans said they expect enrollment to improve. But some also said they expect law schools to take a more measured approach to tuition hikes in the future. “I don’t think [tuition] will be frozen forever,” Agrawal said. “I don’t think it will go down again. But I also don’t expect it to rise precipitously.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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