Legal Education ROI

CBO: $1.3 Trillion in New Federal Student Loans by 2027

Each year the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) provides its baseline projections for the federal student-loan program. This year it published them early with its annual “Budget and Economic Outlook.” The projections include the total amount of new federal student loans that the office believes will be disbursed, future interest rates, and subsidy costs, i.e. whether the government will make or lose money on the loans. This year, the CBO projects that the government will lend an additional $1.3 trillion to students between FY2017 and FY2027. The figure is up slightly since the 2016-2026 period, discussed here.

Subsidy Rates

The CBO uses an accrual-accounting methodology to determine the present value of federal loans. This essentially means discounting the estimated cash flows of student loans against government securities. If student loans make more money than buying government debt would, then the loans are valuable. Accrual accounting does not include the market risk that a private lender would consider when offering a student loan, which is why many people advocate fair-value accounting. It’s a surprisingly contentious issue, which I elaborate on in the student debt data page, because under most fair-value accounting estimates the government loses money on student loans.

Under accrual accounting, the CBO projects negative subsidy rates for federal student loans; that is, it sees the government profiting from its lending. All student loans issued in FY2017 will earn an estimated 13.3 percent return, about the same as last year. Of interest to law-school watchers: Unsubsidized Stafford loans and Grad PLUS loans issued in FY2017 will make 18.6 percent and 20.8 percent returns, respectively. Oddly, Parent PLUS loans appear to be the most profitable for the government.

table-2As with last year the CBO included fair-value estimates of federal student loans. By this measure, the government loses about 10 percent of its investment on student loans every year until FY2027. Unsubsidized Stafford loans and Grad PLUS loans lose about 4.5 percent in 2017, but the percentage increases over the decade. Parent PLUS loans remain profitable.

Note also that the CBO believes the net number of loans will rise during the decade. It’s already evident that federal student-loan borrowing is declining.

table-6Under accrual accounting the student loans will net the government $112.6 billion; under fair-value accounting the government will lose $133.8 billion. This isn’t a lot of money for the government, actually, but it could obviously be redirected to better uses.

Interest Rates

A crucial variable affecting subsidy rates is the CBO’s projection of future interest rates. Last year, the office believed interest rates for FY2016 would be about half a percent higher than they turned out to be. This year, the CBO estimates that interest rates will plateau at 3.5 percent starting in 2022.


Last year, I argued that the interest-rate estimates were more plausible than two years earlier. That was, however, before the election, and now the rate on 10-year government bonds is much higher than before. As a result, student debtors will probably pay higher rates starting in the next academic year, and the accrual method will produce higher future profits for the government that are probably illusory.

Blogger Discredited: Law Students Not Aging (on Average)

The blogger being … yours truly. A few years ago, I asserted on The American Lawyer that high-end LSAT scores were falling not because smart people were avoiding law school but because younger people were. I was trying to push back against the notion that young people are law-school lemmings. I think I was ultimately right about the LSAT scores but for other reasons, as I’ll discuss later.

In the meantime, here’s how we know I was wrong. The LSAC tracks law-school applicants by their ages. It last analyzed the data in 2010, and I thought it would only take two or three years until the next update. Well, the LSAC dragged its heels and kept a long-outdated pdf on its data Web page. I’m not sure why; the new numbers don’t show anything damning. Anyway, I noticed that the LSAC finally updated its applicant age data, so here you go:


2010 is blank because the LSAC didn’t bother releasing that information, which is what happens when you’re slow and disorganized.

Using 2009 as the base year (because that’s the last applicant peak we have), we find a very modest shift in applicant age brackets. Among applicants in 2015, about 2.1 percent fewer were under the age of thirty while 2.1 percent more were over thirty. The biggest contributors are 25-29-year-olds and the over 40 bracket, respectively. Although half the cumulative decline in applicants since 2009 can be attributed to the 22-24 bracket, they take up about half the applicant pool. Other brackets also declined proportionally.

Other findings: Acceptance rates have risen in all brackets, which isn’t surprising, and for the most part the number of accepted applicants who didn’t matriculate fell. Starting in 2014, more women applied to law school than men. (LSAC applicant age data don’t always correspond perfectly to its other datasets, so this finding might not be precise.)

So why the decline in high-end LSATs? As the alt-fact-mongering Law School Truth Center taught me a couple years ago, the LSAT is an equated test, so declines in test takers proportionately reduce scores. As a result, fewer people will get high (and low) LSAT scores. The end.

2016: Full-Time Private Law School Tuition Up 2.7 Percent

Full-time tuition costs at private law schools rose an average 2.7 percent before adjusting for inflation. The rate is about 1 percent higher than the last two years’ increases, but it’s still below the typical 5 percent rate before the Great Recession. I focus on private law-school tuition because public law schools receive varying degrees of state subsidies, so they do not reflect the already distorted legal market’s prices.

Here’s what the dispersion of full-time private and full-time public (residential) tuition looks like going back to 1996:


I don’t have much to say about this that I haven’t before, but it appears that the 25th percentile public law school will soon charge more than the Stafford loan limit, which has been set at $20,500 for several years now. The limit is important because it indicates when students will need to rely on other funds to pay for their legal educations, including Grad PLUS loans, which can also go to students’ living expenses. Since 1996, Stafford loans have lost about a third of their value to inflation.

Notably costs are still widening, so after chopping up the law schools into quintiles, here’s the increases for the mean of each quintile.


The chart depicts at least three straight years of top-heavy tuition increases: The more expensive law schools are becoming more expensive—4 percent more among the top 20 percent of law schools. Two years ago, Columbia Law School became the first to charge more than $60,000, and it now costs more than $65,000. This year six other law schools joined the 60k club: NYU, Cornell, Penn, Chicago, Harvard, and USC. These seven schools raised their full-time costs by 3.8 percent on average, but theirs weren’t the largest increases. The following nine law schools raised their full-time tuition by more than 5 percent: Loyola (Calif.) (+5.4%), Michigan State (+5.5%), WMU Cooley (+6.1%), Faulkner (+6.6%), Lincoln Memorial (+6.8%), Tulsa (+7.0%), Charlotte (+7.1%), Willamette (+9.6%), and Howard (+10.9%).

It would be unfair of me not to acknowledge the handful of private law schools that cut their full-time charges: Campbell (-0.4%), Capital (-5.2%), Dayton (-6.4%), and Indiana Tech (-31.1%). Fourteen private law schools held their costs flat: New York Law School, Chicago-Kent, Brooklyn, Suffolk, Loyola (La.), Western State, Ave Maria, Western New England, Detroit, Valparaiso, Barry, Oklahoma City, Mississippi College, and Elon.

Yes, I notice that two failing law schools, Indiana Tech and Charlotte, both dealt with their incipient problems by slashing and hiking costs, respectively. For Indiana Tech, it didn’t translate into more matriculants.

Finally, 19 public law schools cut or held their residential tuition with the two most notable ones being Texas A&M (-15.4%) and UC Hastings (-9.1%). Akron, Cincinnati, and Toledo also didn’t raise their tuition, so along with Capital and Dayton that makes five of nine Ohio law schools that stand out in tuition control.

Full-time tuition costs don’t necessarily indicate what students are actually charged, but they do show how much rent law schools can extract from the government’s loan programs. For many law schools that ability is fading.

Information on this topic from prior years:

Week 49: 53,100 Applicants Projected for 2017

And the LSAC’s three-year applicant volume comparison is out of the starting gate! It finds 14,892 law-school applicants as of week 49 of this year, a 5.1 percent drop from last year, when 28 percent of all applicants had applied at least once. As of now, it appears that there will be 53,186 applicants by the fall; there were 56,126 in August 2016.

The first reported week of applicant activity can be volatile. Last year at week 48, the projected number of final applicants was 55,524, which was about 1 percent off. I would not make any serious bets on where it will go, but perhaps there will be another applicant decline this year. The New York Times published another withering article on legal education in 2016, but the number of LSAT takers ticked up in September/October. Early in the cycle last year, applicant counts were up from the prior year.

Applications have fallen 1.7 percent compared to week 49 of 2015, so applications per applicant are higher now, 5.49 versus 5.3. This measure tends to rise during the year.

Last year I focused on two issues that are still relevant: One, the distribution of applications to law schools, and two, the extent to which applicants backload their applications later in the cycle. The distribution question will have to wait until the ABA releases its Standard 509 data, but many law schools could still be living in a law-school crunch despite the flat number of applicants. The second point is not something I can evaluate this year because the LSAC started reporting all applicants rather than just fall applicants as of 2016.

That’s all. Peace.

Past reporting on this topic:


Good News: Legal Services Industry Grew 2.0 Percent in 2015

Since I started writing here more than six years ago, it’s always been bad news for the legal services industry. Dwindling output, year in, year out. This time, no longer. We have growth: 2.0 percent in 2015.


(Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA))

And yes, thanks to an alert reader I can now show the BEA’s complete GDP-by-industry dataset going back to 1963! We can now see that if the legal services industry had maintained its mid-20th century growth rate it would be nearly double its current size. Imagine how much better law practice would be. You might think there’d be a need for more law schools to meet the demand.

Arguably, the government’s definition of the industry or its composition has changed over the decades as it has for other industries, but I doubt it. It’s mostly lawyers’ offices. Undeniably, though, the typical product of the legal services industry has changed. I’d bet that the weighted-average hour of legal work is very different now than in 1975. Even so, it’s still possible to give a dollar figure of how much stuff private practice lawyers are producing.

…And it ain’t much. The legal services industry produced less in 2015 than in 2012, 1995, and 1988. There’s room for a lot of growth. The sector peaked in 2008, and since then it’s shrunk more than 20 percent.

The other caveat is that the legal services industry’s growth this year is mostly attributable to the gross operating surplus (what goes to firm owners, partners, solos) as opposed to employee compensation, which better indicates budding demand for new lawyers. The breakdown is: gross operating surplus, +1.5 percent; taxes on production and imports, +0.5 percent; and compensation of employees, +0.0 percent.

Yeah. You read that right. 0.

However, compensation has shaved off growth since 2007, so maybe a zero year isn’t so bad. Here’s the chart of the industry’s components, which still only goes back to 1987:


Compensation of employees in the legal services industry peaked in 2003 at $121 billion (2009 $). Now it’s $97 billion, a similar 20 percent decline.

Finally, although the legal services sector did well in 2015, the rest of the economy did better: GDP grew 2.6 percent, of which 1.9 percent went to compensation of employees. Things still look better for non-law.

Finally, legal services as a share of household expenditures grew for the first time in thirteen years.


At its maximum, households spent $99.5 billion on lawyers in 2003. Now it’s $87.9 billion, down 11.7 percent.

I’ve written elsewhere that the legal services sector can’t shrink forever into nothing. It’s like estimates of the year Japan’s population reaches zero. So we were bound to have some good years. What we need is evidence of sustained growth, especially in employee compensation. Instead, that’s not going anywhere, but at least it’s not falling anymore.

LSAT Tea-Leaf Reading: September/October 2016 Edition

It only took the LSAC 40 days since the September/October LSAT administration to update its Web site, which is a noticeable improvement over June and February. Frankly, I’m finding that more interesting than the actual numbers: 33,563 for September/October, up 1.0 percent from last year.


Because of the rise in test takers, The four-period moving sum budged up 0.3 percent to 106,030. Essentially, the trend is flat, but I thought it would continue falling because of the New York Times article a few months back. I think it’s safe to say that if the Times can’t discourage people from law school, then the low-hanging fruit of easily dissuaded potential applicants has been exhausted.

Still, we don’t know anything about people who don’t choose to take the LSAT because they think it’s a bad idea. I question whether that’s a logically valid category. On the whole, we can expect another poor haul for law schools. Maybe others will consider going the Indiana Tech route.

Speaking of Indiana Tech, I recommend reading J-Dog’s gloating on the subject. He earned the privilege.

Indiana Tech Accused of ‘Bait and Switch’

By students of the soon-to-be-closed law school? NO! By a lawyer representing an aggrieved faculty member, according to Fort Wayne’s News-Sentinel:

[Indiana Tech’s board of director’s] decision “throws into chaos the lives and academic plans of the student body. The law school’s tuition is just under $20,000. You don’t have to be a lawyer to be repulsed by this outrageous bait and switch.”

I predict very few lawyers are repulsed by Indiana Tech’s decision. I’m not the first to opine on it, but Indiana Tech School of Law’s demise benefits humanity. It was never fully enrolled, only one of its twelve graduates passed the bar, and at last the board saw the writing in the blue book. Whether it will herald more law school closures is debatable. I think many of its peers will see Indiana Tech as an Icarus rather than a bellwether.

If I were cynical, I’d suspect Indiana Tech knew it was going to fail and used its provisional accreditation as a sword to rescue its students from the ignominy of starting their legal educations over at a more sound ABA school than a shield against total failure.

Otherwise, I have very little to say on this subject, except to remind everyone of those bygone days five years ago when Indiana Tech School of Law was a glint in its board’s eyes—and its Feasibility Committee was warning that there would be an attorney shortage so unbearable that we’d have to import foreign lawyers. Seriously, it was that dishonest.

Now Indiana Tech’s president, Arthur Snyder, concedes, “Over the course of time it has become apparent that the significant decline in law school applicants nationwide represents a long term shift in the legal education field, not a short-term one.”

Many voices warned Indiana Tech not to open a law school. It ignored them and made a $20 million mistake. But don’t expect it to apologize to its students for its hubris—they’re the ones who really paid.