Public Law Schools Become Private

There is a lingering perception that public law schools are cheaper than private law schools. First, the accuracy of this perception is hard to measure because of the extensive price discounting (in the form of scholarships) used by private law schools (and some public law schools) to engage in price discrimination. Therefore, students generally can’t infer very much on the published “sticker price” of a law school; the actual price can vary widely and can’t be known until an individual student’s financial aid package is prepared.

Second, I wonder if the era of “public” law schools is drawing to a close because many “public” law schools now derive trivial state support. This National Law Journal article gives an update on this development: University of Virginia Law School gets zero state support; University of Michigan and University of Minnesota get 3% of their budget from the state; and Illinois, Texas and William & Mary all derive 10% or less. Inevitably, this means the price discount for public law schools will narrow; and it challenges our notions about what makes a law school “public” in the first place.

Normatively, I don’t think this development is inherently good or bad. Obviously, public law schools have played a key role in providing low cost access to a legal education, but diminishing state support doesn’t automatically mean the end of that in an era of aggressive non-public price discounting. But the phasing out of state support should ultimately contribute to the decline of stereotypes of the benefits of public vs. private legal education. In the future, they will be indistinguishable.