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Can the USC Law School be one of the top 50 U.S. law schools, as ranked by the U.S. News and World Report? Easily. No outlay of funds is necessary, no expensive new building, and no new national dean. Just two reforms.
That answer will surprise the reader since he or she has heard nothing but bad news out of the law school for years. Currently the school is tied for 90th with four other schools and falling — in 2004 it was 78th, and in 2005 82nd. In 2005, applications were down 200 from 2003. Also, in 2004, an attractive new law school arose in the beautiful city of Charleston. Can USC — if trends continue — stay the best law school in the state?
The faculties at most American law schools are roughly equal — USC's is easily as good as Georgia and the University of North Carolina, and certainly better than Harvard or Yale. Most education, though, takes place outside the classroom. Students learn from each other and, like tennis players, play better against better competition. USC's students have always been excellent. Students and their families, however, use the U.S. News rankings to select a law school, so falling rankings reduce the quality of the student body. That trend has to be reversed.
The university, as the rankings have been falling, however, has been raising tuition at the law school. The tuition is more than $15,000, up from around $8,000 in 2000. USC's neighboring schools are charging substantially lower tuition — Georgia (ranked 37th) costs $7,900 and Chapel Hill (ranked 26th) around $10,000.
This spring, for the first time, the admissions committee heard of good South Carolina residents choosing Georgia over USC. Georgia, taking advantage of USC's high tuition, has been giving scholarships to good South Carolina students — making them eligible for in-state tuition. Good students are choosing Georgia (ranked 37th) and tuition of $7,900 over USC (ranked 90th) and tuition of more than $15,000. You can't blame them for that.
The combination of falling rankings and rising tuition is, of course, not sustainable. Students will increasingly use USC as a "back-up school." There is some urgency to reverse the decline now since last year the number of USC students with LSAT scores above 160 (82nd percentile) fell from 88 to 56. The University should reduce law school tuition to the level of the neighboring schools we are competing with. That will end the brain drain of bright South Carolina students leaving the state for lower tuition. Nor need a tuition reduction cause any burden for the general taxpayer — the law school can be self-sustaining at the new tuition. Tuition competitive with our neighboring schools is the first needed reform.
USC's Law School has historically had strong advantages:
• Our students want to be here — we rank very high in percentage of students accepted who attend. In 2004, 50 percent of our accepted students attend, a rate that is second to Yale (80 percent); equal to Harvard (50 percent) and substantially stronger than Columbia, Virginia, and Chicago (20 percent).
• As the state's only law school, students have been able to assess the character of the people they will be practicing with for 40 or 50 years.
Those advantages are very much at risk now.
A popular USC Law School coffee mug used to say "USC — Best Law School in the State" — the joke being that we were the only law school in the state. Charleston School of Law opened in 2004 and expects provisional accreditation shortly. South Carolina residents now have an alternative opportunity. The Charleston school, indeed, has a number of advantages over USC — first, it is located in the beautiful city of Charleston. Second, it is a free-standing school that can make decisions on its own. Indeed, Charleston's median LSAT score (154) is already approaching USC's (175). The university, despite the new competition, directs the law school to admit 240 new students each year.
The USC Law School class size should be reduced to 180. That is the second needed reform. Our LSAT numbers (using as a measure the lowest LSAT score of the upper 25 percent of the class, which was 162 at USC in 2004) then will be better than Florida, (ranked 41st) Maryland (ranked 41st) and Tennessee (ranked 52d), and equal to Kentucky (ranked 56th). USC's 162 will be approaching Georgia and Chapel Hill's 164. The U.S. News rankings consider many other factors but are ultimately driven by the quality of the student body. The LSAT number is the generally accepted standard for that.
Virginia has used its excellent law school as an engine for its entire higher education system. South Carolina can do the same. In any case, we don't need a new USC Law School coffee mug saying "USC — Second-best law school in the state."
Professor Quirk is chairman of the Admissions Committee at the USC Law School.