May 01, 2012
The National Law Journal
Think law school's expensive? You don't know the half of it
By: Karen Sloan
U.S. News & World Report caused a minor stir in March when it reported that graduates of American Bar Association-accredited law schools leave with $100,433 in educational loan debt.
But that figure doesn't reflect the true cost of financing a law degree — a statistic that prospective law students ought to understand, according to Law School Transparency Executive Director Kyle McEntee.
As part of the comprehensive database of law school employment statistics it launched this week, the organization has projected the total cost of law school loans for students who will graduate in 2015 and 2016 — that is, the ones who will start law school this year or next. The former will owe an average of $195,265 and the latter will owe an average $200,595.
"My jaw dropped when I ran the numbers," McEntee said.
He added a few caveats. The calculations are based on the assumption that students will borrow the full tuition amount in the form of federal loans, even though many students receive some scholarship money. They also assume that students at public law schools pay out-of state-tuition levels, which generally are higher than in-state rates.
Out-of-state tuition is "the starting point for all tuition rates, before discounts are applied," McEntee said. "It is a new student's debt exposure if he or she isn't entitled to any discounts. And it's not as if a significant portion of every state school's class isn't from out of state."
The calculations also take into account factors that prospective students may not consider, including interest and inflation. Starting with each school's actual tuition this year, the calculations assume 3 percent tuition increases. That amounts to a conservative estimate, given that Northwestern University School of Law's 3 percent tuition increase next year is the lowest there in 40 years, while the University of California Hastings College of the law plans to hike tuition next year by 15 percent for in-state students.
"This is trying to get people away from thinking, ‘I'm borrowing $50,000 a year, so I'll owe $150,000 when I graduate,' " McEntee said. "It doesn't work that way."
Debt projections for individual schools can be found at Law School Transparency's Web site.
The City University of New York School of Law features the lowest projected debt for the class of 2015, at $96,242. The University of California, Berkeley School of Law had the highest, at $273,667, although that figure assumes graduates paid out-of-state tuition rates; most students from outside California qualify for in-state tuition after one year.
New York University School of Law had the next-highest projected debt at $266,462.
Law School Transparency based its database on statistics compiled by the American Bar Association: The National Association of Law Placement, or NALP: U.S. News; and the schools themselves. The organization was founded in 2009 to press for better consumer information for prospective law students.