THE LAW SCHOOL DEBT BUBBLE: $53 Billion in New Law School Debt by 2020

So we know that in 2010, a majority of 44,245 law graduates took on $3.6 billion in student debt based on comparing Official Guide and U.S. News data. Without back issues of U.S. News, is it possible to figure out how much debt previous classes took on, and—*gasp*—project it into the future?

Yup.

The ABA provides a piffle of a PDF titled, “Average Amount Borrowed for Law School,” which begins with the 2001-2002 school year and ends with the 2009-2010 one. I’m guessing the law schools didn’t send the ABA 45,000 debt numbers but merely the average of their students’ debts, so what you see on the ABA’s PDF is not the average debt load of public and private law school graduates but is actually the average of law schools’ reported average graduate debt levels. To test the ABA’s version’s accuracy, let’s compare its numbers to the average of U.S. News’s law schools’ average debts for the 2009-2010 school year.

SOURCE PUBLIC AVERAGE PRIVATE AVERAGE
U.S. News $70,795 $107,182
ABA $68,827 $106,249

The average public law school’s average students’ debt differs by about 3%, private schools 1%. Clearly, we’re talking about the same stuff, so we can use the ABA’s numbers. Here’re graphs of graduate debt levels.

And yes, they track 3-year average tuition levels, at least for private law schools. For public law schools, I added one year of non-resident tuition to two years of resident tuition, and it falls a little short, which suggests that either a large proportion of people who go to public law schools move to different states and pay at least one year of resident tuition, or public law school students have been taking on more debt than before the turn of the century.

With the ABA data in hand, there are three more things we need to determine total law school debt: the number of graduates, the breakdown of graduates (public/private), and how many of them took on debt. The split between public and private law school grads in 2010 was 34%/66% according to the Official Guide, and roughly 84% of all public school grads took on debt as opposed to 83% of private grads according to U.S. News. Using these assumptions we can compare total graduate debt for the class of 2010 with the two methodologies.

SOURCE TOTAL PUBLIC GRADUATE DEBT TOTAL PRIVATE GRADUATE DEBT TOTAL GRADUATE DEBT
U.S. News $951,772,400 $2,668,868,422 $3,620,640,822
ABA $869,979,117 $2,497,898,010 $3,367,877,127

It appears the ABA data are more generous than the U.S. News ones are, placing total graduate debt at $3.368 billion rather than $3.62 billion.

Using the “public/private grad split” and “percent who take on debt” assumptions from above, we can calculate how much total law school debt law grads took on going back to the 2001-2002 school year. Although, we should note that only two of the sixteen law schools that received ABA accreditation between 2001 and 2009 were public schools (Irvine received accreditation in summer 2011), so these numbers likely underestimate the totals because the proportion of public law school graduates would have been greater at the beginning of the decade (say 37% tops) than now.

Since the debt levels are growing exponentially, here’s the projection for 2020 grads.

It appears legal education has been one of America’s winning industries for the last twenty years, posting an estimated 6.8% annualized growth rate in terms of debt revenue alone, though that’s a slight overestimate due to the relatively greater number of graduates between 2001 and 2009. In the future, total annual graduate law school debt will double by the end of the decade (~$6.8 billion/year), and this is a conservative estimate because many public law schools are rapidly “privatizing” by going off state subsidies. Continued high unemployment will encourage this process for those public law schools that aren’t leaving the state dole whole hog, such as Minnesota and Arizona State. Public law schools will supplement subsidy shortfalls with tuition increases and a handful of alumni donations. This will add $50.6 billion onto around 500,000 future law graduates’ shoulders. In 2010, the total average debt for graduates who took on debt was $90,959. At current graduation rates, in 2020, of 54,536 graduates, 45,625 will take on debt, and their total average debt will be $149,120 ($114,801 for public school grads; $173,161 for private grads).

$50.6 billion isn’t completely accurate because not everyone who starts law school finishes. The ABA kindly furnishes us with a PDF that tells us what law school attrition rates are by year (and if you do the math, you’ll find that about one entering student in eight drops out). It doesn’t tell us what the rates are by public or private law school (the Official Guide would), though I’d guess more are private than public. Nor does it tell us how many of them took on debt. I’ll use our previous assumptions anyway and add the following: (1) 1Ls paid 1.5/6ths of what they would’ve paid as 3Ls, 2Ls 4.5/6ths of what they would have paid as 3Ls, and 3Ls 5.5/6ths of what they would’ve paid had they not left. It’s crude, but fair. (2) Those who paid never came back, and (3) they all paid with debt. The attrition PDFs are all missing the 2008-2009 school year (stupid ABA), so I averaged the numbers from the previous and succeeding years to fill the gap. I’m omitting 4L attrition. They’re few in number, and I suspect many of them returned to complete their degrees later. Here’s what we get:

Attrition adds about 6% to the debt totals, increasing the numbers to $53.442 billion, an additional three billion dollars ED will disburse.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. will issue $1,302 billion in Direct Loans by FY2020 (Table S-12). $53.4 billion of that will be new law school loans (4.1%), if these data are comparable. I don’t think anyone has an idea of how much existing student debt is for law school, but given what the ABA data already show and looking backwards, it’s probably between ten and thirty billion dollars. Knowing how anemic job growth has been for lawyers over the last few decades, it is clear that the federal government will waste a lot of money supporting the legal education system due to the impracticability of repayment under even 25-year repayment plans, leading to near-universal use of Income-Based Repayment.

I’m in favor of IBR, but endless law school tuition increases makes this a losing program for ED and taxpayers, unless the interest from everyone else repaying their loans covers forgiving billions of dollars in law school debt. However, I doubt the Congressional Budget Office, much less OMB, has projected IBR’s effects twenty-five years from now using fair-value accounting.

Meanwhile, doubling law school debt in ten years all but verifies that law schools are Winston Universities, claiming to ED and Congress that law students must spend billions of federal dollars on educations that in many instances are superfluous to the economy’s needs and are overpriced for the few that are. We can only hope Congress kills the Direct Loan Program and restores bankruptcy protection from student loans before this problem gets worse.

Sadly, the ABA was in the best position to ensure that law schools worked efficiently and were not over-enrolled, yet it stood by while law schools prioritized their own prestige over their students’ welfare. Beyond the cost to students and taxpayers is the immense shame the ABA and the legal profession will face.

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One Response

  1. [...] bottom line is that economists predict the loan bubble will burst soon because of graduates burdened with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and [...]

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