Law School Student Debt Is Just Tip of the Iceberg

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Your Student Loan Ranger was intrigued by a recent report from the Center for American Progress titled "What Can We Learn from Law School? Legal Education Reflects Issues Found in All of Higher Education." In a nutshell, the report argues that the failure of schools, students, and policymakers to respond as the cost of getting a degree climbs and the chances of getting a job that pays well enough to justify that level of debt diminishes is not unique to legal education. It is the highly visible tip of a growing iceberg of student debt that threatens all of higher education.

It's not a surprise to regular readers of the Student Loan Ranger that most law students borrow to finance their legal education (88.6 percent according to a 2008 FinAid.org analysis cited by the report) or that they borrow a lot. (According to American Bar Association figures for the 2009-2010 academic year, the amount borrowed for law school averaged $68,827 for public law school graduates and $106,249 for private law school graduates.)

Meanwhile, undergraduate tuition has grown by more than 3 percent a year for the past 30 years. This climb is not as steep as the rise in law school tuition, but outpaces the 10 percent rise in median family income for Americans with children over the same three decades. The result, as we noted in our review of the Project on Student Debt's "Student Debt and the Class of 2010" report, is that student loan debt—for those two thirds of college seniors who graduated in 2010 with student loans—averaged $25,250.

"What Can We Learn from Law School?" does a decent job of chronicling the dimming job prospects for recent law school graduates. Between January 2008 and November 2010, 5,280 attorneys (and 9,120 staff members) lost their jobs at major law firms.

According to the National Association for Law Placement, only 87.6 percent of the class of 2010 had found employment by February 2011 (the lowest rate since 1996); only 68 percent (the lowest rate ever measured) of them were in jobs that required bar passage; the rate of part-time employment was at 11 percent; and their median salary was $68,000 reflecting the fact that half the class were working in lower-paying public service, clerkship, government, and academic jobs.

As the report notes, these numbers may well reflect the new reality of the legal job market rather than a temporary blip caused by the Great Recession. If so, the legal world has been slow to adjust to this reality. While law school applications fell off by almost 10 percent from 2010 to 2011, there were still nearly 79,000 applicants for 60,000 positions at law schools. Law schools have not adjusted their curricula to make them more innovative or cost effective. Nor have they been required to do so by their accrediting agency, the ABA.

There has been pressure for reform from some quarters. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Tom Coburn have pressured the ABA to reform its data collection to present accurate job statistics. And students and graduates have been calling for greater transparency on blogs and forming nonprofits such as Law School Transparency. "What Can We Learn from Law School?" calls for the following reform measures:

• The Bureau of Labor Statistics should collect and publish average employment and salary data for recent entrants into an occupation and work with the Department of Education to make this data available to prospective students.

• Accreditors in all sectors of higher education should create standard definitions for employment and salary statistics, and require member schools to make such information readily available to students. Accreditors should audit member schools' adherence with these standards from time to time. And Congress should require that the ABA develop such standards as a condition of retaining its status as an approved accreditor.

• The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity should conduct a review and submit a report to Congress and the Department of Education on accrediting standards that stifle innovation or drive up tuition costs in higher education.

• Congress should provide funds to colleges through the Fund for Innovation in Postsecondary Education for projects that use technology or other innovative solutions to drive down tuition costs while maintaining or improving educational quality.

These seem like worthwhile projects to us, but are they sufficient given the scope of the problems described in the report and the nearly $1 trillion in student debt that currently burdens students and graduates? Let us know what you think in the comments below. You can also be part of the conversation on Twitter @EJW_org and we use the hashtag #studentdebthelp.

Stay tuned as we continue to examine these problems in upcoming weeks. We'll have an interview with the founders of Law School Transparency and examine innovative proposals, such as the UC Student Investment Proposal. And if you need help with your student debt burden, register for one of our upcoming student debt relief webinars.

This post original appeared on U.S. News Education's Student Loan Ranger, a blog by Equal Justice Works.  Isaac Bowers is a senior program manager in the Communications and Outreach unit, responsible for Equal Justice Works's educational debt relief initiatives. An expert on educational debt relief, Bowers conducts monthly webinars for a wide range of audiences; advises employers, law schools, and professional organizations; and works with Congress and the Department of Education on federal legislation and regulations. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, he was a fellow at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP in San Francisco. He received his J.D. from New York University School of Law.

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