Cooley Law School will reduce tuition from the current rate of $1,750 per credit hour to $1,375 per credit hour beginning fall 2020. Courtesy WMU Cooley Law School
To adapt to a decreasing demand for law school, the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School is reducing tuition by 21% and lessening its overall footprint.
After a recommendation by Cooley President and Dean James McGrath, the board of directors voted to reduce tuition from the current rate of $1,750 per credit hour to $1,375 per credit hour beginning fall 2020.
“We realize that a significant part of providing access to legal education is cost. To put it simply, we became too expensive,” McGrath said. “If we truly have an access mission, we want to make sure that we're not pricing ourselves out of the market.”
McGrath, who began his role in July, said the demand for law school has been decreasing nationally since 2008. While others may have seen this as a temporary issue, McGrath said he thinks it’s related to a decreasing supply of jobs in the field. Much legal paperwork and other tasks now can be completed online, and some of the junior-level legal work is outsourced overseas, he said. So, he sees the issue as ongoing.
“I think we need to pivot,” he said. “We want to be able to react in a way that would best serve Cooley for the long term.”
While this is a national issue, McGrath said he has noticed some law schools have slightly increased student numbers over the past couple years, though he is not sure exactly why. He thinks lowering tuition will help make the school more competitive.
“We do believe it's just too high, and the board has in mind that it wants to be in the bottom 25% of tuition for all private law schools,” he said. “This will get us there pretty quickly.”
The school has nearly 1,200 students, more than 140 of them in West Michigan.
“We're not committed to any particular number, but we just want to make sure that we are promoting the access that we’ve always had,” McGrath said.
In addition to lowering tuition, the school plans to close its Auburn Hills campus, upon approval from the American Bar Association and the Higher Learning Commission, and reduce the Lansing campus footprint.
The Auburn Hills campus is anticipated to continue operations through December 2020. Each Auburn Hills student will receive individual advising on a degree completion plan.
McGrath said the Lansing campus has four buildings. One is for sale, and leadership is considering consolidating the whole campus into a single building.
McGrath said the existing campus was built at a time when the demand for legal education was significantly higher, and tuition was priced to accommodate the larger footprint. Reducing the excess capacity will increase efficiency and strengthen the school’s ability to focus on meeting its goals for the future, he said.
Employment reduction decisions have not been made at this time. Any employment reduction decisions will be made with the hope of maximizing voluntary attrition and relocating as many impacted employees as possible.
McGrath said he thinks some employees will naturally leave following the changes. If the changes result in duplicated positions, he said administration may consider layoffs.
McGrath said he is planning a capital campaign this year to engage the school’s 20,000 alumni and supplement the tuition cuts, which he expects will cause Cooley to dig into its endowment for the next couple of years.
“Through effective fiscal management and generous donations, the law school is in a position to make this bold move,” said Lawrence Nolan, Cooley board chair.
In response to recent stricter standards by the ABA, McGrath said Cooley adopted higher admissions standards in January 2019 to ensure each applicant is more thoroughly measured, not necessarily through considering scores alone.
“Numbers may define a population, but they don't define any particular student,” he said. “We want to make sure we don't lose these diamonds in the rough.”
He said the school has had students whose score may not indicate they would be successful in law school but who then become the top of their class, and he thinks all law schools have such students. McGrath said the response to the stricter standards is to ensure Cooley plays its part in addressing the lack of diversity in the law field.
“We are really working hard to make sure that our mission of access and diversity in the profession doesn't suffer because of that,” he said.