Law School Activists Demand End to Tuition

In the most recent wave of activism at the Law School, some students are calling on the school to eliminate tuition completely as part of their new campaign for financial justice.

Members of the group Reclaim Harvard Law published an open letter Sunday addressed to Law School Dean Martha L. Minow and members of the Harvard Corporation—the University’s highest governing body—demanding an end to tuition.

The demand is the cornerstone of “Fees Must Fall,” a campaign activists launched several weeks ago during the Law School’s admitted students weekend. The initiative marks a new focus on economic issues in their movement for better treatment of minorities at the Law School, after activists successfully advocated for the school to remove its controversial seal.

“Reclaim Harvard Law” Poster
Harvard Law School students put up posters as part of Reclaim Harvard Law's occupation of the Law School's Caspersen Student Center, which began this February.

“[The seal change] is a great symbolic gesture, but we wanted to make sure that there are concrete economic steps that are taken so that students of color and students from low income backgrounds are less marginalized,” Reclaim Harvard Law member Sarah B. Cohen said. “This is aligned with our racial justice goals and a natural continuation of our activism.”

Tuition at the Law School this year is $57,200 and will rise to $59,550 for the 2016-2017 academic year. Students in the Law School's Class of 2015 graduated with an average of $149,754 in debt, according to the Law School’s website.

The letter claims that high costs disproportionately impact students of color, who “are less likely to have amassed wealth in the United States.” The expense deters many from entering the Law School in the first place, and compels those who do attend to opt for high-paying careers in corporate law to pay off their loans, activists wrote.

Law School spokesperson Robb London wrote in an email that the school “is deeply committed to expanding access to the best students regardless of their backgrounds, and to providing aid to those who need it.”

Eighty percent of J.D. students receive some form of grant or loan aid, according to London. In the letter, however, activists argue that financial aid and the Low Income Protection Plan—a program that helps relieve the debt burdens of graduates who go into public service—are not enough.

They propose that the Law School do away with tuition entirely, and tentatively suggest that the school use its endowment or cut costs—including faculty salaries—to cover any resulting shortfalls. But the letter stopped short of recommending concrete alternatives to tuition.

“The problem with us making a very concrete suggestion is that there is not complete transparency in the Law School’s budget,” Cohen said. “Nor do we think that the burden should be on us as students to come up with that.”

London wrote in an email that the school relies on tuition and other sources of funding to cover costs. Legal restrictions regulating the endowment’s use would make drawing on the endowment difficult, London said, and budget cuts would not be sustainable.

“Such cuts would force us to scale back or even eliminate our clinical programs, and would quickly hamper our ability to attract top-flight faculty and students, and to innovate and lead in legal education,” London wrote.

Activists declined to describe what the Fees Must Fall campaign will entail, but said they are planning to expand the initiative.

—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at claire.parker@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.

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