New Law School Heads Down Slippery Slope
by Craig Eley
Colorado will soon have its third law school when the Aspen College of Law (ACOL) opens its doors to its first freshman class this September. Ralph Acheson, the dean of the college, reported that 5,000 applications have been received so far, of which 1,000 are expected to be accepted.
Dean Acheson acknowledged that even though a freshman class of 1,000 is an ambitious undertaking, he plans for the school to have 4,000 students by the time the first class graduates in 2004. In an era when law school applications have been dropping like XFL Neilsen ratings, ACOL has come from nowhere and proven that smart marketing, rather than a school’s academic reputation, may be what matters most. For example, ACOL is the only law school that advertises in such publications as Rolling Stone, Skate Boarder’s World, and Ski. "We want high schoolers and college students to say early on to their parents, ‘hey, law school looks really dope [cool] — can I go?’" explained Dean Acheson. "What parents wouldn’t love hearing those words from their kids?"
And dope it will be, if Jack Green, ACOL Dean of Students, is to be believed. He maintains that "law school is the crowning achievement of a 19-year (or for some of our students, a 20- or 21-year) academic career, and it ought to be gloried in, not slogged through." Toward that goal, the school will have no regular class times, allowing students to take their classes whenever it is convenient for them. This will be possible because all law school lectures have been videotaped (this was accomplished last year at ACOL’s "partner school"), and students will be given a set of tapes at the beginning of each semester, to view when it suits them. It is expected that, during the winter, students will take advantage of the daylight hours to hone their skiing skills, and reserve the evenings for learning. In fact, this opportunity is a major focal point of ACOL’s advertising campaign, which features spectacular photos of Aspen’s numerous skiing venues.
But will learning from a videotape work? "Our research demonstrates that the student we are targeting has already done most of his or her learning by staring at a television set," commented Dean Green. "Watching videos is as natural to them as drinking beer, so what better way would there be to continue their education?"
And exactly what student is the new Aspen school targeting? "They must have graduated from some college (or be able to document an equivalent in life experience), they must have taken the LSAT, and they must be able to pay $70,000 a year in tuition," Dean Green unabashedly pronounced.
That eye-popping tuition figure does not include room and board, and with Aspen’s extremely tight housing market, where will the students live?
"Anywhere they want to," explained Dean Green. "To be frank, the student we are going after will have no trouble paying rent on a condo in Aspen. And we fully expect that some of their parents will buy one as an investment, which we are prepared to facilitate through Whiteacre Properties, our in-house real estate brokerage."
When it was pointed out that this would likely lead to a school which caters exclusively to the economic elite, Dean Acheson was quick to assuage this writer’s fears. "Our investors have purchased some houses in Aspen, and in five years these will be torn down and 30-story condominiums will be built on their sites. This will result in sufficient housing for our students, as well as a large number of units which we intend to rent to tourists and others. The income from the non-student rentals will allow us to offer students a below-market rate, which we estimate will be no more than $3,000 per month, parking not included."
The school even has a strategy for convincing the town of Aspen to rezone the school’s investment properties so that these monstrous towers can be built. Students will be required to reside within the town’s limits, and they will all register to vote there. By the time the student population reaches 4,000 (1,000 day students per class, plus 1,000 evening students) in 2004, students will hold the voting majority in the municipality. "Our students will not only receive a legal education, but a political one," beamed Dean Green. "Since so many lawyers are involved in politics, we think it appropriate that academic credit be given to those students who will serve on Aspen’s city council and its zoning board. This infusion of new blood will be a big plus for the community, and should give the law school a fairly free hand with its development plans."
One may wonder how a law school that has not yet gone through the accreditation process can attract so many students at such high tuition and housing costs. Many states, Colorado included, do not allow applicants to sit for the bar exam unless they have graduated from accredited law schools. As usual, Dean Acheson has a ready solution to this problem. ACOL has partnered with Button Gwinnett Law School, an accredited institution located in Georgia. "Gwinnett was on the verge of bankruptcy when we stepped in and proposed a joint venture with the school," Dean Acheson explained. "All of our class offerings consist of videotapes of Gwinnett’s professors’ lectures, and we have an arrangement by which our students will transfer to Gwinnett in the last quarter of their senior years. Until we obtain accreditation, our students will technically graduate from Gwinnett, although they will never have to go to Georgia. They would then be entitled to take any state’s bar exam. Heck, if it works out the way we think it will, we may never apply for accreditation!"
So why would a student attend Aspen College of Law, with its high tuition, when he or she could attend Gwinnett, pay less tuition, and cut out the middle man? "Well," conceded the dean, "our admission requirements are a shade lower than Gwinnett’s. Plus, have you ever tried to ski in Georgia?"
While spinning itself as somewhat of a party school, the reality is that the ACOL curriculum has a very practical bent. Dean Green pointed out that the entire senior year at ACOL will consist of each student studying for the bar exam of whatever state he or she chooses. Again, this will be accomplished through bar refresher videotapes, so the students will not need to pack up their books or their skis to travel to states of lower elevation. No real time refresher lectures? "We may bring John Moye in live to do his contract rap," the dean revealed, "but that will be more for comic relief than for scholarship, of course."
In response to criticism that this private law school has been created simply to line the pockets of its creators, Dean Acheson was unapologetic. "For too long, law schools have played a sucker’s game. We train the nation’s attorneys, who then go out and become financial titans. Meanwhile, the law schools are reduced to begging for crumbs from their graduates in order to keep operating. At ACOL, we intend to get paid up front, and we promise to never ask our graduates for a penny."
For those with friends or relatives who might be interested in enrolling in the charter class of Aspen College of Law, be advised that applications must be accompanied by a $5,000 non-refundable application fee. The deadline is April 1, 2001.