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Home » Financial Aid News, Student Loans Info

How to graduate from law school without massive student loans

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October 13, 2008 by Mara Strom

When I was a senior in college, about to graduate with a degree in political science, I seriously considered going to law school.  It seemed like everyone I knew was doing it, and really, what else was I going to do?  Law school had become (and remains for many American college students) the next-step in an undefined career of liberal arts academia.


(I’m not knocking liberal arts schools in anyway.  I am a proud graduate of a school with a strong liberal arts grounding.  I’m just saying that a lot of us didn’t/don’t know what we’re going to do with our lives when we graduate – and that the percentage of uncertainty seems greater than at professional/applied schools.)

So, what stopped me from sitting for the LSATs?  Aside from a profound dislike of standardized tests, it was my realization that I couldn’t go to law school without incurring massive student loan debt. And I knew, even back then, when I was much more naïve about the way that debt can run (ruin) your life, that the only way to pay off that kind of debt would be to go into corporate law.  And I knew, again – even back then, that that was not what I wanted to do.

Of course, I realize that not everyone is going to rule out a legal career due to their fear of standardized tests and Sallie Mae.  And I also know that there are plenty of happy corporate lawyers (presumably at least).

So, if law school is in your future, then you will probably want to pick up the most recent National Jurist.  This magazine for law students compiled a list of the 50 most generous law schools in terms of their financial aid awards.  The ranking specifically looks at how much each school hands out in terms of government student grants and scholarships (but not student loans) as percentage of tuition.

It’s interesting to note that not one of America’s top private law schools, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford or the University of Chicago, made this list – most likely because their hefty tuition far outweighed any aid package offered.

The highest ranked law school to make the National Jurist‘s Top 50 list was the University of Virginia School of Law, which scored a ratio of 23.2 percent. UVA was ranked the 9th best public law school in the 2009 US News and World Report college ranking edition.

Here’s a look at top 25 schools on the National Jurist list, according to the TaxProf blog:

1. Thomas Cooley: 93.9%
2. Toledo:  61.4%
3. Liberty: 51.2%
4. Northern Kentucky: 50.4%
5. La Verne:  49.0%
6. St. Thomas:  43.6%
7. Akron:  43.2%
8. Connecticut: 41.2%
9. Howard: 41.3%
10. Hamline: 39.3%
11. Whittier: 36.0%
12. SMU: 35.8%
13. Western new England: 35.1%
14. Ohio Northern: 34.3%
15. Alabama: 34.2%
16. Iowa: 34.1%
17. Nebraska: 33.2%
18. Indiana-Bloomington: 32.6%
19. Wake Forest: 32.3%
20. LSU: 31.9%
21. Tennessee: 31.7%
22. Ave Maria: 31.2%
23. Arizona: 31.0%
24. UDC: 31.0%
25. Capital: 30.8%

Here’s a few more things about student loans and law school you may want to keep in mind:

* Nellie Mae says that the average professional student (i.e. law and medical student) graduates with $48,500 in debt.  But almost everything I have read suggests that the real number is much higher – double it for law school and triple it for med school.  Even the University of Iowa, which is a public school (i.e. it has relatively lower tuition costs) says that its average law school graduate carries more than $76,000 in loans.

* Financial aid awards for law school and other professional graduate schools, including business, medicine and dentistry, are historically (and notoriously) low, even for students with a high degree of financial need. Why?  Because schools know that lawyers, CEOs, doctors and dentists make, as a whole, a lot of money.  Certainly enough to be able to “afford” sky-high student loan payments. (The average first-year salary for an attorney is nearly $58,000 per year.)

* And so, universities direct their limited financial aid funds to programs and schools serving students who don’t have that same earning potential.  At least that is my unofficial understanding of why there is typically so little scholarship and grant assistance available to law school students.

* By the way, lawyers graduating from a top 10 school like Harvard or Stanford command even higher salaries than the average, making those schools an even less likely source of generous financial aid awards. (The average starting salary for a Harvard law school grad is just shy of $127,000/year, more than twice that of the national average.)

* All of this means, then, that if you want to consider a career in law – and don’t want to be straddled with 100k in student loan for the duration of that career, then you might want to take a long-hard look at some of the schools on the National Jurist’s list.

(On a separate note, I know I said that I’d be writing a post this week about how the market crash is affecting college savings plans.  It’s coming, I promise. Just maybe not this week!)

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