US News has published the debt figures for the law school graduating classes of 2012. A few notes:
(1) These figures are mislabeled “average indebtedness of 2012 graduates who incurred debt.” That’s incorrect. These figures represent the mean amount of federal educational loans taken out over the course of law school by graduates who incurred debt. The distinction is significant, because the reported figures don’t include interest accrued during school. How significant? The #1 school on the list, Thomas Jefferson, reported 98% of its graduates taking out a mean of $168,800 in federal loans. A student who borrows that amount will have $201,000 in federal loan debt at repayment, six months after graduation. So you can tack about 17% onto these figures to get a true sense of what people owe on their law school loans when they get their bar results. (Note too that these figures don’t include undergraduate debt).
(2) The increase in indebtedness over the past few years is startling, though not surprising, given the very rapid run-up in tuition. Compare these figures to the class of 2008:
Total number of schools where the mean total of law school loans taken out was at least $100,000:
2008: 47 of 191 reporting schools
2012: 123 of 193 reporting schools
The mean total of law school loans taken out at the median school increased by 33% between 2008 and 2012, from $84.5K to $112.6K.
In 2008 there were 15 schools at which the mean total of loans taken out was less than $50,000 (this is the figure that Brian Tamanaha gives as a reasonable amount of money for most law students to borrow under current circumstances; Tamanaha’s thoughts on the new debt figures are here). In 2012 there are two, one of which (UC-Irvine) charged no tuition to members of the class of 2012, but is now charging nearly $50,000 per year to its new admits. The other school is Southern, which almost certainly misreported its data.
The UC-Irvine data are interesting, because they indicate how high the direct costs of going to law school are in an expensive urban area even if law school is “free.” UC-I gave full three-year tuition scholarships to everyone in its initial entering class, yet those students who borrowed any money still finished with around $58,000 in debt (including interest) by the time they graduated.
(3) There are some very striking differences in how fast indebtedness has risen at different schools. For example, mean debt at Columbia has risen “only” 13%, while at TJSL it has gone up by astonishing 60% in just four years. It’s also notable that fully one in five Columbia graduates incur no law school debt at all, even though only a handful of Columbia graduates get large discounts on tuition, and the non-discounted cost of attending the school is now nearly $250,000. This suggests that the relatively modest increase in mean debt loads among Columbia graduates is to some extent a reflection of the mean SES of the student body at Ivy League schools.