Federal loans for law students are justified as “providing access” to a legal career for the middle class and poor. That’s one side. When you examine how the funding operates, however, it becomes apparent that federal loans are an irresistible (and life-sustaining) drug for revenue addicted law schools.
When a student applies for a federal loan, the law school processes the application. Loans are granted by the government without any evaluation of the likelihood of repayment. Accordingly, a student at Thomas Jefferson Law School is treated exactly the same as a student at Harvard Law School, without regard to the fact that the former is far less likely to repay the loan.
Among the 221 graduates of the 2010 class of Thomas Jefferson, only 73 obtained jobs as lawyers. According to information provided by the school, the highest earners worked in private law firms, with a 75th percentile salary of $77,500 (only 12 of 55 graduates in private firms reported their salary). Based upon the numbers provided, and making a few reasonable assumptions, we can estimate that at least 80% to 90% of the class earned less than $77,500.
Now consider that the average debt of 2010 graduates of Thomas Jefferson was $137,000 (95% of the class had debt). The monthly payment for this debt is $1,600. Graduates must earn over $100,000 to manage this level of debt.
Thus, only about one third of graduates actually ended up as lawyers (nine months after graduation), and most of the graduates that landed lawyer jobs did not earn enough to manage the average debt of the class. It appears that a significant percentage of the class is likely to enroll in IBR, a federal program designed to help graduates in “financial hardship,” paying reduced monthly payments based upon a percentage of their income, with the balance of the loan forgiven after 25 years. That is what “access” to a legal career comes to for many unfortunate law graduates today.
Let’s now look at things from the law school end. From 2008 through 2011, Thomas Jefferson law graduates had a total combined debt over $100 million, nearly all of it federally guaranteed or directly borrowed from the government. How many students with positive outcomes did this money buy?
The combined debt of 2010 law graduates of Cooley was $91 million; at New York Law School it was $48 million; at Suffolk it was $46 million. Or take Florida Coastal. In 2008 the combined debt of law graduates was $28 million; in 2009 it was $33 million; in 2010 it was $45 million. Each year the enrollment went up, and the total debt with it. Four hundred students graduated in 2010—eight hundred new first years enrolled that August. One might guess what the combined debt of the class of 2013 will be.
We are talking about real money here—and nearly all of it goes directly from federal coffers to law school bank accounts. The students are conduits for the money. These student-conduits bear the burden of the loans in the first instance, and the federal government thereafter. The average debt of graduates at all of these schools was well above $100,000. Not all of this debt will be fully paid in the end. Law schools get their money up front.
This is not just about low-ranked law schools. In 2010, Georgetown graduates had a combined debt of $71 million, Harvard and American were over $50 million (G.W. just below that), with another half dozen law schools over $40 million. Remember, these amounts only cover a single year. High-tuition law schools with large enrollments collect a hundred million dollars of debt-based, government supplied money every two to three years. Law schools have been ramping up tuition and enrollment without restraint thanks to an obliging federal loan program.
Federal loans indeed provide access to a legal career for many, and that is important, although we must also be mindful of the poor results suffered by many individuals. Law schools, meanwhile, are engorging themselves on the federal loan program.
—Brian Z. Tamanaha