In the constant reporting about the cost of tuition, one critical detail is almost always forgotten: different cities have radically different law school markets. The very specific nature of each market has a dramatic impact on the actual tuition paid by students at the various schools in that city. And when you look around the country, it's tough to find a more competitive market for law students than in Philly. (There may be others like it - Chicago comes to mind - but I know Philly best.) Apart from the moderate cost of living, aggressive scholarships in Philadelphia mean that law school tuition is simply cheaper here. There are particular circumstances that explain uniquely low effective tuitions in Philly:
1. The market has five schools successfully fighting for roughly the same cohort of students: Rutgers- Camden, Temple, Villanova, Penn State, and Drexel. (Yes, Penn State is hours away, but it competes for the same students as the other three schools and scholarship decisions affect the others.) Notwithstanding differences in US News rankings, many students are willing to select a lower ranked school among the four depending on the bottom line cost of an education. This is evident from the fact that the LSAT range of each school is pretty wide and that each school's 25th percentile LSAT is within 4 points of every other's. Or, to put it another way, students admitted to the highest US News ranked school of the four - Temple - are routinely lured away to each of the other four schools by virtue of aggressive tuition discounts. (Compare this to the market power of Penn Law, which loses few of its admits to these four schools even though its sticker nears $55K and it offers relatively minimal discounting. Penn Law's advantage makes sense; a degree from a super-elite school really is a different value proposition.)
2. Drexel Law is relatively new and the university is extremely aggressive in providing scholarships in order to establish the school.
3. Villanova is combating the after-effects of now-expired ABA sanctions by discounting aggressively.
4. Temple is not only a public university with a lower price point, but it appears to super-subsidize its law school. Consider that the only comparable public law school in Pennsylvania is Pitt Law. Pitt Law charges PA residents $29,600 tuition - while Temple Law charges them $19,700. Or, for internal comparison purposes, a Temple MBA student pays $27,500 per year in the 54 credit two year full-time program - about $8K more per year than Temple JD students pay.
4. Rutgers-Camden has a low sticker, at least for New Jersey residents.
5. Penn State, which for historical reasons charges the private school price for a JD, has nonetheless been discounting aggressively as well, presumably because the university wants JD student quality to match the university quality more broadly. But now, with the new Commonwealth Scholar program, it has gone several steps further, effectively slashing its in-state tuition in half to match Temple.
6. Meanwhile, Widener Law keeps pressure on by providing discounts for students with somewhat lower predictors.
This is a price war. To put a blunter point on matters: an applicant with a 161 LSAT and a reasonable GPA can attend a very good law school in Philly for close to ZERO tuition. And one with a 157 LSAT can attend for $15K per year or less. High GPA's also buy some big discounts, and even students with lower predictors are getting significant scholarships.
Law school sticker prices may be fairly consistent from region to region, but my sense is that the same is not true for actual cost. I suspect that there is wide variation in effective tuition from market to market - so much so that some applicants will be be better off moving to attend law school, even if it makes finding a job back home a bit harder.
We can debate whether this is the proper way to price and discount - there are legitimate critiques to be had about weaker applicants bearing the highest costs - and the employment market for lawyers is still tough. But it's worth adding a little more complexity to stories about the cost of legal education.
Update: I'd hoped that commenters might avoid personal attacks. At least in the case of MacK, that didn't happen. I've deleted them and closed comments.
Further update: Folks at Pitt Law have pointed out to me that they offer more scholarship subsidy, on average, than does Temple, thus narrowing the gap between the two schools. I'd also add that I anticipate that Penn State's new tuition reduction will put further downward pressure on Pitt's tuition. The main point, of course, is that sticker price for law school should never be taken as gospel - either by critics making claims about the cost of legal education or by prospective students. If a person is accepted to Pitt - or Penn, for that matter - and doesn't like the sticker cost, he or she should negotiate.