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May 30, 2014

Jobs and student debt — NU Law moves steadily forward

by Dan Rodriguez

To:      Northwestern Law Community

From:   Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez

Date:   May 30, 2014

Re:      News from the Road

A  little over a year ago, I described in a memo entitled “The Road Ahead,” some of the concrete steps we were taking at Northwestern Law to deal with the challenging job market for our graduates, the flattening of law school applications, and the high costs of legal education. I said therein: “[W]e aren’t going to ignore the ways in which the legal economy affects our alumni, current students, and prospective students.” And I was optimistic in saying that “we will craft strategies, big and small, to meet the challenges facing legal education so that we will continue to thrive in the years to come.”

In the period since I shared that memo, we have taken important steps to meet these challenges, and I wanted to provide you with an update about where we are.

With regard to employment, we have made some meaningful progress – this despite the continued difficulties in the law market nationwide. In the information reported to the American Bar Association earlier this spring, we noted an uptick in our employment rates; and, to put the point more in context, we have been more successful in this regard than have many of our peers. Indeed, we, along with Georgetown Law, saw an appreciable increase in graduate employment over the previous period and we are now within the top 10 among law schools on this key statistic.

And let me be clear that these are good jobs. Our graduates are employed at large law firms throughout the major metropolitan areas, consistently at rates near the very top of American law schools.[1] At the same time, many of our graduates pursue opportunities at smaller firms, often closer to home. Moreover, a critical mass of our students – many of whom came to Northwestern with experience in the business sector and with an interest in using their legal training and law degree to pursue careers in business – have gone into prime positions in corporate America, positions for which a JD is a significant advantage, even if not required. Last, but certainly not least, we have a good number of graduates who landed positions in the public sector (including judicial clerkships) and in public interest. Thanks to the generosity of the Jay A. Pritzker Foundation and alumni who have matched a significant gift through their donations, I am very proud to note the incredible success of our Pritzker fellows, ten students who will work in important public interest positions throughout the U.S. In all, our employment picture is diverse and impressive. We will continue to measure our success as a first-rate law school by the opportunities our graduates pursue after graduation.

With respect to law school costs and student debt, we have made significant progress in addressing these difficulties. While a first-rate legal education remains, any way you slice it, an expensive proposition, I remain committed to reducing the overall financial burden on our students. This is important to maintain our competitive position; and, in addition, it is simply the right thing to do.

In my view, one critical measure of a law school’s progress is its commitment to financial aid. In that regard, ours has been tremendous. When I arrived in the winter of 2012, our “discount rate,” that is, the percentage of overall tuition revenue which went to financial aid for the students in aggregate, was around 14%. This figure was on the low end of peer law schools and was, to me, inadequate for the needs of our students and their debt burdens. These past two years, our investment in financial aid has skyrocketed. We expect that our discount rate this coming year will be well over 30%, more than doubling what it was a mere two years ago. Fewer of our students are paying “sticker price” for their legal education; and this significant augmentation of our aid budget enables us not only to continue to recruit highly accomplished students with meaningful financial support, but also to address, to an unprecedented degree, student need. Indeed, one of the multi-million dollar gifts we received during this past year will be devoted, in considerable amount, to need-based financial aid. Other large gifts currently in the works will likewise be focused on such imperatives.

What about tuition? Here, the glass is half full and the news is moving in a positive direction. For this coming year, our JD program tuition increase will be especially modest – just 2.5%, lower than the past two years and certainly the lowest in nearly a half century. The combined total of tuition + fee increases since I arrived at Northwestern has been 8.7%, modest when viewed in light of the increase in both financial aid support and in the improvement of key aspects of the law school’s infrastructure and overall educational quality. It is also modest when considered in the larger context of peer law schools.

I am a “compared to what” kind of guy, so here is some comparative data, based on figures from 2011-12 through 2014-15:

Harvard                      15.2%

Penn                            12.2%

Cornell                        11.7%

Duke                           11.6%

U. Chicago                 10.2% for two years (next year not yet announced)

Northwestern            8.7%

Yale                             7.3%

 

In the aggregate, our overall and average tuition increases over this three-year period are the second lowest among peer schools. In the “rankings” of tuition + fees, we have been passed by Penn and we may be passed by Chicago this coming year. True, these can represent small differences. But the trend is an important one. It reveals, along with the major increase in our discount rate, our commitment to addressing the high costs of legal education by curtailing tuition increases and taking a hard look in the mirror to make sure that we are not purchasing our enhanced quality and reputation at the expense of our students.

These efforts at limiting tuition increases and reducing student debt must be joined, of course, with a renewed commitment to limiting expense increases (which we are doing) and a commitment to raising money from alumni and friends (ditto) and, lastly, diversifying our revenue portfolio by developing auxiliary sources of revenue through innovative, targeted programs (ditto). You will hear much more about these efforts in the coming months, especially as we move toward the public phase of our comprehensive fundraising campaign. For now, I wanted to give you a snapshot of what we have been doing to meet the challenges facing our students, with regard to both employment and cost.

These are difficult times for law schools to be sure, but Northwestern Law is thriving. With the collective work of our students, faculty, administrators, and alumni, we can be a beacon for law schools grappling with challenging circumstances and the dynamics of a changing legal economy. I am proud of the achievements we have made in these regards and I remain committed to further progress. The road ahead has its twists turns to be sure, but it is a bright one for our law school and our great community.

 

 

[1] [The National Law Journal ranked Northwestern Law 6th in its 2014 listing of “Go-To” law schools, based on the percentage of 2013 graduates hired by NLJ 250 firms.

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