Low enrollment leads to Law School tuition freeze

Following concerns about stagnating enrollment into Mason's Law School, the Board of Visitors decided to freeze tuition for the upcoming academic year (graphic by Walter Martinez).
Following concerns about stagnating enrollment into Mason's Law School, the Board of Visitors decided to freeze tuition for the upcoming academic year (graphic by Walter Martinez).

During its final meeting of 2013, the Board of Visitors voted on Dec. 12th to freeze the tuition of Mason’s law school for the upcoming school year.

The tuition freeze was prompted by low enrollment numbers at the law school, which have been dropping steadily since 2010, with a decrease of approximately 84 students from 2010 to 2012.

Dan Polsby, the dean of the law school, attributes the low enrollment numbers to the economic recession and a limited job market for new lawyers.

“We have an industry situation both in the law school and higher education businesses… The demand for lawyers is a straight line to the robustness of the economy. The employment piece of the economy…it’s in serious condition,” Polsby said.

Applications to the law school have also dropped along with enrollment and were almost cut in half this past year from 4,510 applicants in 2012 to 2,460 applicants in 2013. However, as applications and enrollment numbers drop, tuition prices have been climbing with a $5,891 increase over the past five years.

The dean communicated the enrollment and tuition information to Provost Peter Stearns, who echoed the dean’s concerns.

“From an institutional standpoint, we want to address the low enrollment issue and we want to recognize that law students are having a harder time sustaining tuition because the jobs are harder to find….we don’t want to saddle [students] with increasing debt challenges,” Sterns said.

The pair discussed options for combating high tuition while also finding a way to increase enrollment numbers.

“[We want] to safe guard the broad interest of both the welfare our students, who later become alumni and our owners…One of the things we found is that increasing tuition introduces [in students’ lives] uncertainties and by freezing the tuition, we think that we can get that piece of the problem under control,” Polsby said.

Stearns then worked with Senior Vice President JJ Davis to come up with a proposal for the BOV addressing the school’s desire for a tuition freeze.

The proposal emphasized the importance of tuition pricing, stating applicants care most about the combination of tuition and fees with the cost of living while they are looking to apply. This results in the “net cost of attendance” of which Mason has increased 50 percent since 2006, faster than any competing law school both regionally and statewide.

“We’re clearly not market competitive,” Davis said.

The proposal ultimately recommended that current tuition prices be frozen for existing and incoming students, while maintaining current scholarship and financial aid levels for the 2014-2015 school year. It also included a desire for the BOV to offer 20 percent more tuition discounts for incoming students in need.

“The hope is that it will ease some of the burdens on both the existing and new law students and we hope it will result in improved enrollment,” Stearns said.

The BOV approved the measures, while also allowing the law school to decrease their enrollment targets for next year in hopes of limiting negative impact on the budget.

The freeze would result in a loss of $100,000 to the overall law school budget. However, this loss is minimal compared to the $1.4 million loss the law school experienced this year after being unable to achieve their enrollment target.

Davis believes that the freeze may increase the number of applications to the law school for the upcoming year, as tuition prices are not often set until the spring. The set prices would provide more stability for applicants.

“We think this is the best way to maintain and attract new students,” Davis said.

Stearns hopes that the freeze will not only have a positive impact on the budget, but also Mason’s potential law students.

“Ironically, if one assumes that, when the economy recovers more fully, law jobs will expand again, it’s actually a good time to go to law school,” Stearns said.

The law school’s tuition will be frozen at $25,351 for in-state students and $40,737 for out-of-state students for the upcoming school year. 

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