Marilyn Odendahl for www.theindianalawyer.com
Starting with the fall semester 2018, Northern Illinois University College of Law will charge one flat tuition rate to all students regardless of whether they are residents of the state or not.
The university’s board of trustees voted in December to extend NIU’s domestic tuition-rate structure, which charges all students the equivalent of in-state tuition, to the law school.
Out-of-state law students are now paying $32,509.92 annually in tuition, double what in-state students pay.
Tuition has been frozen at the university since the 2015-2016 academic year.
Interim law school dean Mark Cordes said dropping the higher tuition rate can help the law school achieve three goals. Specifically, he said, the price cut will help the law school add more students and grow its size; attract students who are more likely to complete their legal studies and pass the bar exam, and improve diversity since a significant portion of the school’s minority students come from out-of-state.
“We do think by dropping out-of-state tuition we position ourselves to improve our quality and make the school more attractive to out-of-state students,” Cordes said. “(Students will) want to take advantage of the legal market in greater Chicago.”
According to the American Bar Association’s standard 509 reports, NIU College of Law has a total enrollment of 265 students. The class that entered in the fall of 2017 came with a median LSAT or 150 and a median undergraduate grade point average of 3.12.
Northern Illinois University College of Law believes it is the first law school in the country to offer in-state tuition to all those enrolled.
Brian Leiter, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who follows legal education in his blog, “Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports,” viewed the change at NIU in economic terms.
“Northern Illinois University has, no doubt, suffered a decline in applications and in enrollment; this is an effort to turn the tide, by making the school more attractive to non-residents,” he wrote in an email. “That may benefit some students, but it will also benefit the bottom line at Northern Illinois.”
Cordes sees the tuition break as a “potentially significant benefit to border state students.” Residents of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Indiana might be especially attracted to NIU College of Law is 60 miles from the Chicago loop and is the only public law school near the Windy City.
Geographically close to the NIU campus in DeKalb, Illinois, is Valparaiso Law School which has halted admissions and is reassessing its future in the face of “several financial challenges.” The Northwest Indiana law school is about a two-hour drive from northern Illinois law school.
The Illinois law school will, and has spoken, with Valparaiso students who reach out. Cordes said some had inquired about transferring but none have followed through. Also, none of the students came from the defunct Indiana Tech Law School.
Still, NIU College of Law will have to increase its enrollment to cover the lost revenue from out-of-state tuition. Non-resident students attending Illinois colleges and schools can claim in-state residency, and pay the lower in-state tuition rates, after one year but even so, Cordes estimated the school will need to add about five more students each year.
In addition to growing its class sizes, the law school will also have to attract students with solid LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs. Although Cordes maintained his school offers an excellent value proposition since it is the only state-supported law school in the Chicago area, he said attracting top students will require scholarships.
NIU College of Law’s filings with the American Bar Association shows the percent of students receiving scholarships or grants has ranged from 31 percent to 45 percent from 2012 to 2016. In 2017, the figure swelled to 58 percent.
Also, the amount students received has flipped. From 2012 to 2016, less than 16 percent of the scholarship recipients were receiving the equivalent of half-to-full tuition. In 2017, that changed with 41 percent getting half-to-full tuition coverage.
Easing the financial pressure is that NIU College of Law is not a revenue stream for the larger university. Instead, Cordes said, the law school works to bring in revenue to cover its own costs. At present, the school has the resources to enroll classes of 110 to 115 students.
The bulk of the NIU graduates are passing the bar and finding jobs that require a law degree although the numbers have slipped in recent years.
According to the ABA’s standard 509 reports, a combined 74 percent of the first-time takers passed the Illinois bar exams in February and July in 2015 which is down from the 87 percent who passed in 2013.
In addition, of the 88 graduates in the Class of 2016, 52 found full-time long-term jobs that required bar passage while another 14 landed full-time long-term J.D.-advantage jobs. Most of the graduates were either working in small firms with two to 10 attorneys or in government positions.
Cordes, who has taught at NIU College of Law for 35 years, acknowledged legal education is facing a challenging time but he is excited about the things happening at his school.
He continues to tell students, “law is a very good career to go into. There are lots of opportunities to use your law degree and help people improve their lives.”