Higher Education:

Issues Related to Law School Cost and Access

GAO-10-20: Published: Oct 26, 2009. Publicly Released: Oct 26, 2009.

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In order to participate in federal student financial aid programs, law schools must be accredited by an agency recognized by the Department of Education (Education). Accreditation is intended to ensure that schools provide basic levels of quality in their educational programs, and Education recognizes those accrediting agencies that it concludes can reliably determine the quality of education provided by the schools and programs they accredit. The American Bar Association's (ABA) Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar serves as the main accrediting agency for law schools, and students who attend one of the 200 ABA-accredited law schools can take the bar examination in any jurisdiction in the country. There are also several law schools that are accredited by other Education-recognized accrediting agencies such as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Graduates of some of these non-ABA-accredited law schools are eligible to take the bar examination in their own state, but may not do so nationwide. The ABA's accreditation standards focus on a number of issues, including schools' facilities, student support services, faculty, admissions practices, and graduates' passage of the bar exam. Concerns have been raised about how some of these accreditation standards may affect the cost of attendance and minority access. In 2007, we reported on the ABA's process for accrediting law schools and questions that had been raised about the process. In this report, in response to a mandate in the Higher Education Opportunity Act, we examine the following questions: (1) How do law schools compare with similar professional schools in terms of cost and minority enrollment? (2) What factors, including accreditation, may affect the cost of law school? (3) What factors, including accreditation, may affect minority access to law school?

This report conveys the following: (1) Since 1994, tuition and fees at law schools and selected professional schools have increased, and trends in minority enrollment have been comparable across types of schools. At law, medical, and dental schools during this time period, Hispanics and Asians/Pacific Islanders increased as a share of enrollment or stayed at about the same level, while African American enrollment declined or stayed at about the same level. (2) According to law school officials, the move to a more hands-on, resource-intensive approach to legal education and competition among schools for higher rankings appear to be the main factors driving the cost of law school, while ABA accreditation requirements appear to play a minor role. Additionally, officials at public law schools reported that recent decreases in state funding are a contributor to rising tuition at public schools. (3) Most law school officials do not cite ABA accreditation standards as having an impact on minority access at their schools. Lower average Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores and undergraduate grade point averages (GPA) may have negatively affected some African Americans and Hispanics.

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