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Paying for Law School

The following information was originally compiled by Ava Preacher, Assistant Dean and Principal Pre-Law Advisor, University of Notre Dame. I have edited it and added my own sections about loan forgiveness and debt burden. For more specific information, be sure to read the remaining documents in this section of the CD.

The cost of a three-year law school education could run well over $100,000 (even at a public law school!). Tuition alone can range from a few thousand dollars to more than $25,000 a year. When calculating the total cost of attending law school, you also have to include the cost of housing, food, books, travel, and personal expenses. During the first year of law school, full-time students are discouraged from obtaining any but the most limited part-time employment. Therefore, approximately 75 percent of law school students rely on educational loans as their primary source of financial aid.

Money for law school is available in the form of scholarships, grants, work-study and loans, but most students finance their education through loans, either from the government or private sources. Before deciding to take on significant student loan debt to attend law school, take a good, hard look at THE UGLY STATISTICS, reprinted at the end of this handout.

Some law schools offer their own scholarship programs, but the amount available varies greatly from school to school. Some offer their best candidates full scholarships based on merit. Others give financial aid primarily on the basis of need.

Loans from governmental and private sources at low and moderate interest rates are available to qualified students. Some of these loans consider the applicant’s financial need in determining eligibility; other have limitations based on the law school budget. Many states offer guaranteed student loans. To determine your eligibility for these you should consult lending institutions in your area. Private loans are also increasingly available. Typically, the lowest interest rates are associated with federal loans that require demonstrated need; private bank loans are typically available at higher rates.

The following is a list of steps you must take to apply for financial aid.

 

To Apply for Federal Aid:

 
  1. Start the financial aid process in December, well in advance of the school’s particular filing deadline. You cannot wait until after you receive admissions offers to begin the planning process.
  2. Obtain the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) from your college or university financial aid office or from the law school to which you are applying. FAFSA is a need analysis tool developed by the U.S. Department of Education. Note: When completing the FAFSA form, you will designate the names of all law schools that are to receive the report. It asks for information about your income, assets, and other financial resources. Be sure to answer “yes” to the questions, “Will you be a graduate or professional student for the upcoming year? ALL GRADUATE/PROFESSIONAL STUDENTS ARE CONSIDERED INDEPENDENT FOR THE FEDERAL LOAN PROGRAMS. However, some law schools will request parents’ financial information in determining their in-house institutional aid.
  3. Prepare your federal income tax returns as early as possible after the first of the year. Some schools will want to see a copy of your actual return, so be sure to keep a photocopy for your files. The FAFSA requires information that is derived directly from your tax return. While information packets (including the FAFSA) may be available from some law school financial aid offices in the fall, applications cannot be filed until after January 1. (They will be returned to you if received before the first of the year.) However, you can file any time after the first of the year—the earlier the better.
  4. The law schools to which you apply will determine your eligibility for federal financial aid. The amount offered by each law school will vary, and each student’s individually because the cost of attending each law school varies.
  5. Once you determine the school that you will attend, you may begin the federal loan application process.
  6. Most of the private education loan programs will make credit decisions on the telephone. Contact them for details.

To Apply for Aid From Your Chosen Law School:

  1. Call or write the financial aid office of the law schools you plan to attend. Some schools may require you to submit information in addition to the FAFSA, such as an institutional application or an additional form from a central processor. Many schools have very early filing deadlines.
  2. You should arrange for financial aid transcript to be sent from any undergraduate or graduate school you attended to any law school to which you apply. This may or may not be required by the law school for institutional aid.
  3. Complete the loan applications. Note: You will benefit by planning a financial strategy before you even enter law school. Save as much money as you can, and try to rid yourself of any outstanding consumer debt. It is important to have a good credit history. Clear up errors or discrepancies in your credit before you apply for loans. Establish and maintain good credit early.

Loan Repayment Assistance or Forgiveness

Some law schools participate in loan assistance and forgiveness programs. Generally, these programs are set up to help students who want to take low-paying public interest legal jobs upon graduation. You should check with each law school to find out the details of and requirements for its program.

Student Loan Debt 

You should ask each school what its average student loan debt is for its students at graduation. Often, this information is available right on the school’s web site. If it isn’t, call the financial aid office and ask.

It may be shocking, but the student loan debt for an average law student upon graduation can easily exceed $60,000. Six-figure debt loads are not uncommon when one factors in undergraduate student loan debt and credit card debt.

Why the massive debt? Most students can't afford law school on their own, so they borrow. Their student loans cover tuition and books and school-based expenses, but do not leave enough money to pay for living. Costs of living are paid for by savings, by earnings, and increasingly by credit cards. Credit cards are used for everything from social activities to utilities to interview suits—all of the things that financial aid does not pay for. This is an oft-repeated scenario among graduate and law school students.

Unfortunately, the starting salaries upon graduation generally are not high enough to pay for the debt that has accumulated. Law school grads may find themselves unable to afford a house because their debt to income ratio is too high to qualify for a mortgage. They may also be disappointed in their standard of living, given the high amount of their monthly student loan payments. Students who are interested in public interest work often find that it is simply not an option, because they cannot afford to make payments on their student loan debt. (In fact, as the LSAC points out, a total debt of $80,000 translates to a monthly payment of nearly $1,000. Some families pay more in student loans each month than they do for their home mortgages.)

Is there a solution to this dilemma? Many people blame students for being irresponsible. Some are, I'm sure. But personally I believe that law schools should assume some responsibility for this mounting student debt. They collect their tuition money from your student loans, and they make little effort to reduce the size of their classes or to make law school more affordable and less loan-based. That means that, for most of us, the only way we can attend law school and join the legal profession is to borrow for the education. What's a middle-class student to do? I for one do not want a legal education to be a privilege of the rich. Something must happen systemically, or else a generation of students will collapse under a mountain of debt.

Some pre-law advisors are lobbying for changes. But until change comes, the question of whether to assume debt to pay for law school remains a highly personal one. The best thing to do is inform yourself of the costs of school and the risks associated with borrowing to pay for it. Do your homework, and make the best, most informed decision you can.

 


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