Hike in Boalt Hall fees urged
It costs twice as much to attend UC Davis law school today as it did four years ago. At UCLA’s business school, fees have risen nearly 120% during the same period. Throughout the University of California, medical, nursing and dentistry students have faced similar hikes.
The UC Board of Regents, meeting in Los Angeles this week, will consider an additional 10% fee increase for law and business schools. The explosion of fees has angered many students, who protest that higher costs are turning public professional schools into enclaves for the wealthy.
But there is one voice calling for an even greater increase: Christopher Edley Jr., dean of Boalt Hall law school at UC Berkeley.
The charismatic former Harvard law professor and Clinton administration budget official argues that in an era of declining state support for UC professional schools, an even greater commitment from students is required to restore the prestigious law school’s national standing.
“Overwhelmingly, our students are interested in a great education, not a cheap one,” he says.
The dean’s push to improve quality by spending more is unusual enough in an era of cost-cutting and bottom-line thinking in institutions across America. But he is asking for even more: At a university system for which year-by-year budgeting is the norm, he wants a multiyear commitment to raise fees at Boalt by as much as 16% a year for at least five years.
Edley wants to use the money to hire more professors and improve the school’s aging facilities.
Without a long-term commitment for more funds, he predicts an exodus of top faculty -- and his own departure.
“Life is short,” he says.
Edley took over as dean in 2004 with the goal of restoring Boalt Hall’s image. Although it was once ranked among the top five law schools in the nation, its reputation declined in the 1990s as state funding was cut. It didn’t help that a previous dean, John Dwyer, resigned in disgrace in 2002 after he was accused of sexually harassing a female student.
By the time Edley arrived in 2004, Boalt had fallen to 13th among law schools in rankings by U.S. News and World Report. Since then, Boalt has risen to the No. 8 spot; he aims to put it back in the top five.
Although the school has long attracted some of the nation’s top legal scholars, the facility itself is a poor match for Boalt’s private law school competitors. Some of its lecture halls haven’t been renovated since they were built in the 1950s. They still have their original acoustic wall tiles and linoleum floors, and the chairs and tables are bolted to the floor, making it difficult for students to work on their laptops.
“Coming from the outside, perhaps I have a hyper-sense of the fragility of UC’s excellence,” said Edley, who once oversaw a quarter of the federal budget. “There is nothing inevitable about it. Several things are needed urgently to sustain it. That’s why this process has been frustrating.”
Edley proposes building a larger home for the law school and expanding the faculty by 40%, a process he has already begun. He also proposes expanding financial aid and a loan repayment program for graduates who take low-paying public service jobs.
Although Boalt is charging tuition and fees of $25,477 this year, many of its competitors charge $40,000 a year or more. The University of Michigan law school, also a public school and tied with Boalt at No. 8 in the rankings, charges $35,500.
Edley, who said he recognizes that the state is unlikely ever to return to its previous level of funding for professional schools, has embarked on an ambitious plan to raise $125 million from alumni as well as hike student fees.
He noted that some graduates of the law school will go to work for top firms in New York, where salaries can start at $165,000 a year with bonuses of up to $35,000. These students, he said, can afford to pay significantly more than the current fee.
“Political reality and good social policy tell you it doesn’t make sense to ask a cannery worker in Fresno to subsidize the education of students who are going to go off and make these salaries,” Edley said.
Critics of rising professional school fees -- and there are many -- say the high sticker price deters many students from applying. In addition, they say, the huge debt that students can incur prompts some to abandon their ambition of taking low-paying public service jobs, including work as public defenders or prosecutors, when they graduate.
“It makes it more difficult to retain diverse students and students who want to do public interest work,” said second-year student Christine Diaz-Herrera.
Edley, who co-founded the Civil Rights Project at Harvard Law School, is keenly aware of the need for public-interest lawyers, and Boalt has adopted one of the most aggressive loan repayment programs in the nation. He proposes to use funds from the fee hike to expand the repayment program.
Under his proposal, Boalt would pay off law school loans for any graduate who takes a public interest job that pays less than $58,000 a year. The school would make partial payments on a sliding scale for those with salaries up to $100,000 a year.
He estimates that about 20% of Boalt’s graduates take public service jobs and would be eligible. The average student graduates with about $65,000 in law school debts, he said.
“To sweat blood to keep tuition down is a very inefficient way to help the 20% of our students who want to go into public service, and it deprives 100% of our students of the resources they need,” he said.
Ben Allen, a second-year student at Boalt who also sits on the Board of Regents as a student member, said many students are sympathetic to Edley’s proposal, even if it means paying substantially more.
“Law students are very prestige-conscious, and when the dean talks about spending the money to put Boalt back in the top five, that resonates,” he said. “I think all of us would prefer the state be more engaged, but the state’s commitment has been dropping and dropping.”
The regents will consider a 7% fee hike for most UC students. They will also consider a 10% increase at law schools and business schools at UCLA and Berkeley. Student activists oppose any increase, noting that since 2001, fees have risen by 79% for undergraduates, 84% for graduate students and up to 131% at professional schools.
Edley’s proposal for Boalt may run into trouble with the regents for another reason: Over time it would give his law school significantly more funding than the other two UC law schools, at Davis and UCLA. It also would establish a precedent for individual units within the vast 10-campus system to set markedly different fees, something the regents may be reluctant to do.
“The policy we are proposing is that units be given flexibility to adopt strategies that fit the mission and the market position,” Edley said.
“We are trying to break the lock-step one-size-fits-all approach to fees and professional schools in particular.”
“Boalt is not Davis,” he said. “Law is not nursing.”