Georgann Yara

What would Sandra say?

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The name, programs and campus remain unchanged. But for Ed Hermes, the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law at Arizona State University is not the same institution he enrolled in last fall.

When news went public that the law school would move toward self-sufficiency and rely on tuition, grants and non-state funding last October, it raised eyebrows and concerns over how this would affect the public school’s rising reputation among the ranks of the nation’s top venues for law education.

For students like Hermes, the potential impact on the quality of programming and livelihood of its graduates is worrisome.

“I’m not happy about it. Most of my fellow first-year students aren’t happy about it either,” Hermes says. “For some students, it feels like a bait-and-switch.”

In the face of unprecedented economic woes and budget deficits, Arizona public education finds itself on the short end of state funding more than ever before. The nation’s largest public university is no exception, with ASU receiving fewer state dollars than in previous years.

But what privatization and the ramifications of it would mean is a topic sure to be debated for years.

Self-sufficiency vs. privatization

The College of Law at ASU was named as the prototype for what was called a privatization model at an Arizona Board of Regents meeting last October. The goal is to gradually move away from public support and rely completely on tuition, grants and other forms of funding. In ASU’s case, this would ideally occur over the next five years.

Hermes says students are upset and have become more vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction.

“I understand the [state] cuts, but to make a permanent, negative decision to … take the law school off of public funds based on a temporary budget shortfall is the wrong way to go,” Hermes says.

There are two pieces to the privatization model. First, each first-year class would be slightly larger than the previous entering class, as long as the quality of programming is maintained, says Paul Schiff Berman, dean at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

Berman says he expects class sizes to be “not much bigger than 225, or so,” a number that he says is incredibly small compared to most of the top 40 law schools in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. According to the most recent report, ASU is ranked No. 38, leaping from its previous position at No. 55.

Enrollment reached 194 students in the current first-year class. Three years ago, 180 students enrolled in their first year of law school, Berman says. Next year, he projects the first-year class will have more than 200 students.

Tuition, the second piece of the model, will also increase – right along with enrollment, if all goes according to plan. Currently, in-state residents pay just over $21,000 a year for tuition, and out-of-state students pay about $35,000. Tuition is projected to increase by as much as 10 percent each year over the next five years.

The combination of these two components, plus additional grants and donations, are expected to make up the difference that would result in becoming what Berman calls “self-sufficiency” as opposed to privatization.

In the end, the law school would pay entirely for its operating expenses through tuition and donations made through the ASU Foundation.

Professors and staff will continue to be employed by the state, and Berman reiterates that the law school will maintain its public characterization. Within five years, his school’s entire operating budget will be generated by tuition and grants.

“The law school will remain part of the university. There will be no sense in which the school is not going to be a public school. We will be self-sufficient with regard to our operating revenue,” he says.

Moving away from state funding is nothing new. Law schools at the University of Michigan, University of Virginia and University of California at Berkeley, which is ranked No. 7, have made this transition.

“The economics of public education are such that the state is not giving universities the kind of money they need … which means the universities have no choice,” Berman says. “It is simply a reality some have to face.”

Since 1979, the share of the state budget to higher education has decreased from 19.4 percent to 10.6 percent, according to Solutions to Higher Education, an Arizona-based effort to increase awareness of education investment.

Although the issue has attracted attention in the last few months, growing class sizes and tuition hikes have been a pattern in effect for the last couple of years, Berman says.

He believes that ASU will continue to keep its place among the top law schools in the nation as well as being named among the top values in law education even after the school is completely weaned off state funds. Berman says most schools in the top 40 have tuitions double that of ASU, and in that list, only four have tuitions lower than ASU.

Plans to expand programming, such as a master’s program for those who want to enter the legal industry but not become a lawyer, are also part of the school’s future. Berman says ASU is on track to be the first in the nation to offer an undergraduate degree in law, policy and society.

“Over the last couple of years, the quality and size of the applicant pool have increased,” says Berman. “More students are drawn to this law school from around the country, and I expect that to continue … because when compared to our peer institutions, we are the fourth lowest in price.”

Potential downsides

Not everyone is so convinced the law school is headed in a positive direction. The long-term impact and violation of the ethical principles that lie at the heart of why the law school was established is what some current and past students, like alum Todd Lawson, take issue with.

Lawson has spoken with Berman personally about his concerns. He questions the financial data and projections, and although he understands the state’s economic woes and Berman’s willingness to cooperate with what the university wants to do, he hopes the school would come up with an alternate solution. Lawson does not see how the law school can be self-sufficient by raising class sizes and tuition by minimal increments.

“I would like to see him oppose the process as opposed to leaning into it and go with what their plan is,” says Lawson.

When the law school was founded in 1964, the intent was to generate quality, homegrown lawyers that would be interested in staffing government and public positions, such as the public defender’s office and other social organizations that may not attract legal minds from out of state, Lawson explains.

He says the move, whether it’s called self-sufficiency or privatization, threatens the commitment upon which the school was established.

“This is the first law school that was founded to meet the unmet legal needs of the Valley. Here we are, coming up on 50 years, and that commitment is apparently gone. People who inherited the commitment don’t care about it anymore or [don’t] see it as an issue,” Lawson says.

First-year law student, Hermes agrees.

“The state decided to create a public law school to increase access to a legal education. The taxpayers of Arizona have put a lot of equity into the college of law, and [privatization] goes against what taxpayers decided to support,” he says.

Berman’s calculations may have an ASU law degree at a bargain price, even after tuition increases, but what follows graduation could be considered anything but a good deal.

Lawson estimates that the increases would take yearly tuition into the $27,000 range. Currently, the typical ASU law school student graduates with debt, mostly from student loans, totaling $80,000 to $90,000.

For lawyers who plan to go into private practice or have a plush job lined up after graduation, paying off this debt might not seem like that big a mountain to climb. But the reality is that many ASU students enter law school with aspirations of going into more public sectors where the pay is a fraction of their private-practice peers.

“I don’t see how students who come with $80,000 in debt can serve the community. It backs out of the reason why the law school was founded – to serve the needs of the community,” Lawson says.

Hermes believes it could affect the quality of students admitted into the school and make for a slightly different student profile and what kind of law they wish to pursue. He estimates students will need anywhere from 20 to 50 percent more financial aid that is not free.

“It’s inevitably going to have a major impact on students, because we are going to have to take out more loans. That’s good for people who get high-paying jobs, but for folks who want to go into public interest or government, which is a lot of students, that’s a high barrier,” Hermes explains.

Over the years, ASU has managed to increase its financial aid opportunities. Berman pledges this trend will continue with the transition to offset increases.

However, Lawson is not convinced this will alleviate the financial burden. He contends the cost of education has risen at a rate that is greater than inflation, and many aid programs are basically loan programs.

“When you do the math and talk about the cost of a three-year law degree, it becomes a question of how much that monthly loan payment is going to be compared to the salary of an employee. And that math doesn’t work,” Lawson says. “Will it hurt? Yes.”

Opposing outlooks

With plans to expand programming and possibly move to the downtown campus, Berman is confident that the law school will continue the positive strides and maintain the reputation faculty and students have worked so hard to achieve.

Serving the fourth largest population of underserved minority groups among the top 40 law schools is a pattern Berman says will be upheld, as will increasing scholarship money.

“It’s important that people understand that our public commitment to keeping legal education accessible is undiminished. Our commitment to diverse perspectives in legal education remains, and our commitment to having the law school serve the greater populace also remains,” he says.

Still, some remain skeptical.

“They can keep the cost lower by abandoning some of his dreams of buildings and programs. That needs to be done before taking the school private,” Lawson says.

“We’re very proud to go to ASU and we’re happy to be here,” says Hermes. “We were sold on a great public law school, and after we enroll, they’re going to privatize it and jack up tuition significantly and cut all public funding. We’re worried about that. It’s rising through the ranks and this plan is the wrong way to go. It’s the wrong precedent to set.”

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One Response to What would Sandra say?

  1. Laurita August 6, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    Gee, we could have had Ed Hermes as county supervisor, instead of the infamous, and once again totally embarrassing Brock Fulton, brought to you by the same people who are privatizing our schools…

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