Facing undergraduate debt and law school loans, students wonder whether it’s worth it, new AccessLex study says
Almost half of all law school students have debt from their undergraduate education, more fund their legal education with loans and less than half say it was worth it, according to the AccessLex Institute’s Legal Education Data Deck.
In the 2019-2020 academic year, 46% of law students carried undergraduate debt, according to the report, and the average amount of those loans was nearly $27,000, according to the report. The percentage of law students funding their graduate education with loans increased to 76% in 2020, up five percentage points from 2016, the research found.
Some undergraduate loans do not accrue interest while students are still in school, but all loans for graduate studies do.
“That debt is ballooning before you even graduate and have a chance to really address it with full-time employment,” says Tiffane Cochran, vice president of research who’s based in Washington, D.C., at the AccessLex Institute. “That’s where the affordability picture becomes really, really tricky.”
The Legal Education Data Deck, updated twice per year, pulls information from a variety of federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Labor, and organizations including the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, the Law School Admission Council, the National Conference of Bar Examiners and the National Association for Law Placement.
Once out of law school, recent law school graduates’ median salary increased to $85,000 for employed members of the class of 2022, up from $80,000 for the previous year, according to the NALP’s data. However, once adjusted for inflation, median salaries decreased by $2,000, according to the AccessLex Institute’s research.
Of those who received their undergraduate degrees in 2008 and then were surveyed in 2018—the most recent information available—only 48% of those who received an advanced degree in the legal professions said it was worth the cost.
“You’re coming out with six figures of debt, but you’re not actually making six figures,” Cochran says. “When you consider the amount of money that people invest in a law degree compared to what they make, that salary might be surprising.”
Law student debt exceeds that of all other students from graduate and professional degree programs, except those in medicine and other health professions, such as dentistry, according to the study.
The full study, which was most recently updated in January, can be found on the AccessLex Institute’s website.