Expected Law School Student Loan Debt Continues to Grow, According to New Survey

Posted By Eliana Osborn on March 30, 2016 at 2:30 pm
Expected Law School Student Loan Debt Continues to Grow, According to New Survey

If you thought your undergraduate student loans were stressful, the amount of money involved in going to law school may blow you away. The newest update to the Law School Survey of Student Engagement focuses on the financial implications of earning a Juris Doctorate. Survey results from 2006, 2011, and 2015 are compared to examine change and trends.

The world of law school wasn’t immune from the stresses of the Great Recession. Though enrollment is up for some groups, overall numbers of entering students are down 29% since 2011. Colleges and universities generally have been facing scrutiny over job placement claims, something law schools are facing as well.

The central question is about the value of a legal education, at least according to the LSSSE from Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research.

Here are the facts:

  • Median tuition increased almost 6-fold at private law schools and more than 12-fold at public law schools between 1985 and 2013.
  • Almost 90% of law school students rely on student loans to finance their education.
  • In 2012, the average debt for graduates of private law schools was $127,000; $88,000 for public law school graduates.

The LSSSE titled this report ‘How a Decade of Debt Changed the Law School Experience,’ acknowledging the different climate today’s students are studying in. Twelve percent more students expect to borrow in excess of $100,000 to pay for law school, compared to 2006. That number has stayed steady between 2011 and 2015.

The factors causing higher tuition at four-year universities are some of the same ones affecting public law schools, namely reduced state contributions to higher education. Half of students attending private law schools expect their debt to hit or pass $100,000.  For public universities, just 11% of 2006 students predicted that level of cost; today, more than 30% foresee such borrowing.

Over the past ten years, a racial gap in expected student loan debt has appeared in LSSSE results, with 15% to 21% more black and Hispanic students than white or Asian ones anticipating $100,000 or higher borrowing. Racial gaps in family and household wealth surely come into play.

One interesting trend in expected borrowing has to do with LSAT scores. “Respondents in the higher-LSAT groupings were more likely to expect no debt than other respondents, but these trends became more apparent in 2015,” says the LSSSE. Many factors come into play, including test bias and previous preparation, but those with higher scores do anticipate valuable scholarships that will reduce their financial burden significantly.

Some might expect today’s students to be disillusioned about studying law or even choose another career path. But a higher percentage of 2015 respondents than in previous years indicate they had an excellent experience and would choose to attend the same school again. However, those predicting the highest levels of borrowing—over $120,000—were significantly less likely to express positive feedback about their education.

Other than money, law students face significant stress from many sources. More than nine out of ten are anxious about their academic performance and workload. Over 70% are concerned about getting a job after graduation—more than the 60% stressed about finances.

There are many factors making up the decision of what to study and choose as a career.  LSSSE research makes it clear that even law students, who may be expected to see an opportunity for success in their futures, are deeply affected by the high costs of education.

Image//Flickr Creative Commons by Mathieu Marquer

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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