Harvard Students Demand End of Tuition in Push for Diversity

Photo by Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Is Harvard Law School the next target in the longstanding battle of achieving diversity and inclusion in the legal profession? Its students are taking aim at what they say are excessive law school tuition costs.

A group of student activists, calling themselves “Reclaim Harvard,” argues that the cost of attendance at the prestigious law school inherently carves out an important population of minority students who can’t afford the education.

“They can and should come up with another way to come up with the money, and make the process more transparent so that we can participate,” said Harvard Law 3L Sarah Cohen, and a member of the Reclaim group.

On April 17, the group posted a letter to Dean Martha Minow and members of the Harvard Corporation, titled “Fees Must Fall,” as earlier reported by the National Law Journal.

It starts off like a ransom note: “It has been 134 days since we presented you with our demands…”

The letter expressed appreciation for the school’s recent efforts in “effectuating symbolic change with the removal of the Royall family crest,” the school’s longtime symbol which had links to a slaveholding benefactor.

It then went on to detail the rising tuition problem and how it has a direct influence on the school’s diversity, which made us reminisce of this politically incorrect scene in the 1983 comedy Trading Places when Louis Winthorp III, Dan Akroyd’s character, scoffs at the idea of Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), attending Harvard. While the notion of students from diverse backgrounds at Harvard shouldn’t be surprising today, there is still much room for improvement, argues Reclaim Harvard, which consists of dozens of students and staff. The group was formed last fall after an unknown person vandalized portraits of African American professors in the academic halls by posting black tape across them, said Cohen.

In its recent demand on tuition, the Reclaim Harvard letter said:

“The tuition at Harvard Law School (“HLS”) has been steadily increasing annually well above the rate of inflation. When the current 3Ls matriculated, tuition was $52,350. When the next crop of 1Ls start, tuition will be $59,550. HLS’ class of 2015 graduated with an average of $149,754 in debt. Given the current trends, this figure is likely to continue increase in the years to come.”

The students said the “astronomical tuition fees… disproportionately burden students of color, not only by creating a barrier to attending HLS, but also by constraining the career choices of those who do attend by saddling them with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.”

The students demanded an end to tuition at Harvard Law.

To be sure, Harvard is not much different from other law schools that charge equally high tuition costs. Yale Law School’s tuition for its 2016/2017 budget is $57,600, not counting other costs such as room and board. Stanford Law School’s tuition for the same time period is not too far behind, at $56,000. But maybe the bigger question is, how would doing away with tuition entirely effect a law school and its ability to stay competitive? And is this even a practical request?

Cohen, the Reclaim member, stood behind the demand as “realistic.”

“There has been a lack of transparency with the law school’s budget, so it’s hard for us to give a more precise breakdown as to where this money would come from,” explained Cohen, noting that students don’t know faculty salaries.

“It might be that there is room to cut their salaries without that becoming a (competitive) concern,” she said.

Robb London, assistant dean for communications, stressed in a statement that the school is “deeply committed to expanding access to a Harvard Law School education for the best students regardless of their backgrounds, and to providing aid to those who need it.”

London pointed to the school’s financial aid programs, which he said were among the most generous available at any law school. In his 274 word statement, London explains that Harvard’s financial aid applies to the majority of a growing number of JD students:

Eighty percent of our JD students receive either grant and/or loan aid. While incomes available to our graduates more than justify their investment in a legal education, for those who choose relatively low paying work, our loan repayment assistance program reduces their debt to a manageable level. Over the past ten years, the number of graduates receiving that assistance has nearly doubled. The benefits provided through the program have tripled.

Tuition does not cover the full cost of attendance for our students — even for those who pay full tuition — and we rely on other sources of funding, including philanthropy and our endowment yield, to support our work. Much of the endowment is legally restricted to certain uses and can’t be used for other purposes. But even if that weren’t the case, drawing down further on the endowment would ultimately require raising tuition, because as the endowment declined over time the school would become more dependent on tuition to cover annual costs.

Making deep cuts in our budget as a way of reducing tuition would be similarly unsustainable. Such cuts would force us to scale back or even eliminate vitally important components of a first-rate legal education. Our ability to attract top-flight faculty and students, and to innovate and lead, would be lost.

For her part, Cohen called “baseless” the notion that Harvard would have to cut clinical programs as a result of eliminating tuition. “There is no reason to think that is the place where this has to come from.”

For now, it doesn’t seem like Harvard is budging on the demand, based on the statements from London. But should it?

Let us know what you think by emailing us at BigLawBusiness@bna.com.