The news from the legal world keeps getting worse. Recent financial data published by the University of California-Hastings, a San Francisco law school that is part of the UC system, and publicized by the indefatigable Paul Campos at Inside the Law School Scam, shows the kind of questions that prospective students need to ask before figuring out whether law school is the right move.
From the admirably thorough if sometimes forbidding info that Hastings provides, a few facts jump out. The first is the staggering rise in the cost of law school tuition over the last decade, even as total applications to the school fell by nearly a third, and as employment opportunities for newly-minted JDs collapsed during the same period. As the report highlights, Hastings’ tuition revenue nearly doubled from 2003 to 2011, while in-state tuition at the institution more than doubled, from $21,000 to $47,000 from 2004 to 2012.
But the story gets bleaker. For those readers just starting college this fall but considering law school (i.e. starting in the 2016-2017) academic year or who have kids in this position, total non-resident tuition and fees at Hastings by then is projected to rise to nearly $59,000 per year. Taking into account living expenses, that means that the average graduate of Hastings – who, the school’s administration freely admits, face difficulty getting jobs in a Bay Area market where Stanford and Berkeley graduates dominate – will face nearly $200,000 in non-dischargeable student loan debt. That’s the kind of number that we at Via Meadia are referring to when we talk about a War on the Young.
It would be one thing if all of these naïve liberal arts graduates were paying for the privilege of a Hastings education with money from the family vaults. But they’re not. Close to 100 percent of the tuition that students paid was financed by federal loans, like the Stafford, Perkins, and GRADPLUS programs. The student loan system is effectively allowing Hastings to raise its tuition beyond any reasonable or sustainable point and it is encouraging students to make bad investments — in much the same way federal debt programs encouraged the housing bubble of the last decade.
Look even more closely into the details, and you will see something that should make aspiring lawyers think even harder about what they are signing up for. Hastings has very few scholarship programs or other resources for financial aid, but its students do not all pay the same amount of tuition — even after correcting for the difference between in state and out of state tuition.
This probably means that Hastings, like many other law schools, recruits promising students with offers of reduced tuition while making the duffers and the ordinary grunts pay through the nose. It’s a widespread practice and there is nothing particularly wrong with it as long as everyone knows what the story is — but the buyer must beware.
If Hastings is making you pay full tuition, it means the school may think you don’t have the makings of a good lawyer. The more you are paying for your law school education, the less likely it may be that the investment will ever pay off.
This would be one thing if there were enough jobs in the legal field for everyone to get one after law school, but of course that is no longer the case. A significant number of people paying $200,000 for three years of law school are going to end up with jobs they could have had without the degree.
Something that can’t go on forever, won’t, and a lot of American law schools are likely to close their doors. Via Meadia hopes that instead of simply reducing the number of law schools, Americans will figure out how to make legal education cheaper, faster and better.
It’s not at all clear that law school needs to be three postgraduate years; some of the greatest lawyers in American history never went to law school. In the UK, lawyers major in law as undergraduates and usually have one year of legal education afterwards and serve an apprenticeship for two more. It’s likely that either undergrad programs or short intense postgrad programs focused on training students to pass the bar exam combined with apprenticeships would prepare most lawyers for most legal work as well or better than our present system — and in any case, our legal system is about to undergo radical change as IT penetrates farther into the legal world and outsourcing moves more legal and paralegal work overseas.
In the meantime, some words to remember: if a second or third tier law school isn’t offering you a substantial tuition break, the school doesn’t think you’re a very competitive student. It doesn’t make sense to pay full price to enter a profession in crisis when the experts are telling you that your prospects are poor.
And do not forget: most student loans do not get discharged if you go bankrupt. They are a ball and chain that will drag you down for decades. Please, look very carefully before you leap.