Legal education needs to be ‘accessible to everyone,’ says Yale Law School Dean

New Haven, CT, USA – July 4, 2012: Yale Law School at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Yale Law has consistently been ranked the number one law school in the US.

Law schools are some of the most expensive academic programs in the country, averaging $205,744 according to Education Data Initiative. Consequently, many Americans find getting a legal education out of their reach.

Heather Gerken, the Dean of Yale Law School, says that needs to change.

“You know, one of the most important things at this moment in time is making sure that everyone is at the table for the conversation about our future,” Gerken recently told Yahoo Finance. “Law schools are not doing as good a job as they need to do about ensuring that legal education is accessible to everyone.”

Yale Law ranks nine in the top 10 most expensive law schools, according to the U.S. News and World Report. Still, the school offers generous amounts of financial aid to students. Around 72% of students receive financial aid and 69%of students receive need-based scholarships, according to the school’s website.

Better yet, the school in February became the first law program to award tuition-free degrees to students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The Hurst Horizon Scholarship Program specifically erases the roughly $70,000 annual tuition for students whose family income is below the federal poverty line and whose assets are below $150,000.

“We did something that no other law school has done, which is to give full tuition scholarships to the students whose families are below the poverty line,” Gerken said. “It was it was an extraordinary moment. And you know, in some ways, this has been a long-time project for me.”

Both as a professor and dean of the law school, Gerken has observed a stark difference between law school students from middle-class backgrounds and working-class ones. She recalled a dinner with new students in 2016 that made a strong impression on her. The students asked Gerken questions she didn’t usually hear from wealthier students.

New Haven, CT, USA – July 4, 2012: Yale Law School at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Yale Law has consistently been ranked the number one law school in the US.

“They would say things like, ‘I don’t know if I should print out my cases, because it’s $50 to print out cases for this semester. I don’t know if I should buy my textbook, because that’s a couple $100,’” Gerken recalled. “’And I could be sending that money home, I don’t fly home for Thanksgiving, even if my scholarship award lets me do it. Because I don’t want to have another dollar of debt added to my family.’”

Roughly 71% of law school students graduate in debt and borrow $118,100 to attend law school on average, according to the Education Data Initiative. Less than a quarter of new law school graduates say their education was worth the cost.

Gerken says scholarships like the Hurst Horizon are critical for students from working-class programs, who often suffer disproportionately from going into debt.

“Those students don’t have a safety net. They’re not like our middle-class students. In fact, they are the safety net for their own family.” Gerken said. “And so what it has meant for these students to sort of lift that burden off their shoulders so they don’t have to think about it has just been remarkable.”

Heather Gerken became the Dean of Yale Law School in 2017. She received her bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in 1991 and her J.D. from University of Michigan Law School, 1994. She is one of the United States’s leading experts on constitutional law and election law.

Dylan Croll is a reporter and researcher at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @CrollonPatrol.

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