The rise of law school tuition has been cause for much debate in the legal community as to the value of a legal education, especially considering the current job climate. The 2009 median cost per year of traditional private law school tuition was $36,350 (this number has surely increased by now). But, using the 2009 numbers, that means if you completed law school in 3 years, took no loans for living expenses, and had no previous debt, you would still finish law school owing $109,050.
However, most traditional law students must lake loans for living expenses on top of tuition because they are unable to work and support themselves at least for the first year or two. That results in the average law school debt being closer to $150,000 rather than the previously calculate $109,000. Not to mention that you will also be paying roughly 7.5% interest on that amount and this debt is non-dischargeable in bankruptcy, meaning you can never get rid of it.
Compare this to an online law school where tuition is typically under $11,000 a year, resulting in paying just under $45,000 for your entire JD! Plus, the flexibility of online law school allows for you to keep your day job which means it is less likely you will have to take loans for living expenses.
Many students have been asking, is a traditional law degree still a good investment, what with the cost and the debt and the decrease in job prospects? A recent analysis by Jim Chen, dean of an ABA-accredited law school might help you answer this. Dean Chen’s framework is based on the simple assumption that a lawyer’s eligibility for a home mortgage is a good proxy for whether a law degree is a good investment. There are 3 categories of eligibility: comfortably qualify (good investment), normally qualify (satisfactory investment), marginally qualify but “house poor” (not a good investment).
The comfortably qualify category requires that annual income of the lawyer be 6 times a year’s worth of law school tuition. The normally qualify category requires that annual income be 3 times a year’s tuition and the marginally qualify category requires annual income to be 2 times a year’s tuition. Using the 2009 median tuition numbers, this means a lawyer would have to make $218,100 a year to fall into the comfortably qualify category, $109,050 a year to fall into the normally qualify category, and $72,700 to fall into the marginally qualify category.
The above is quite straightforward, but Chen then makes a few more assumptions that may not always line up, and definitely favor law schools (meaning that the data is skewed more toward making traditional law school look like a good investment even when it might not be because of poor assumptions). The assumptions include:
- Graduates borrowed nothing for living expenses (again many law students must take loans for living expense because they cannot work during the initial year or 2 of school and have often not saved enough to support themselves fully while having no income)
- Graduates’ debt will be amortized over 25 years with an interest rate of 6% (the average interest rate for law school loans is about 7.5%)
- Graduate had/has no other debt beside that which was incurred for law school tuition (the average debt for undergraduate education is approximately $22,000, meaning many students enter law school already toting some debt)
Salary figures are then introduced to the equation. Chen quotes NALP when stating that law school graduates on the average make $68,500 nine months after graduating. However, this number is definitely off now. NALP reports that the median salary for graduates of the class of 2010 was only $63,000. However, even NALP points out the flaw in using its estimation stating “because many large law firm salaries cluster around $145,000 and $160,000, while many other salaries are in the $40,000 to $65,000 range, relatively few salaries were actually near the overall median or mean.” Also, consider that those making salaries at the low end of the spectrum are less inclined to actually report their earnings, meaning that the median is probably even less than actually reported.
But, if you were to use the adjusted median of $63,000, then using Chen’s model (with all its assumptions), law school would be a very good investment if average law tuition was $10,000 a year, a reasonably good investment if tuition was $21,000 a year, and a marginal investment if tuition was $31,200.
Considering that almost all traditional law school charge in excess of $31,200 a year in tuition, a traditional law school degree is looking like a less than marginal investment. But where does that leave those who genuinely are interested in the law or want a career in the legal field? Either they are drowned in a sea of debt, or they have to find another solution. Enter online law school.
Among the best benefits of online law school is the cost of attending. Most online law schools charge less than $11,000 a year for tuition and some offer opportunities for scholarships! This means that you could complete your entire degree for the price that you would pay from one year in a traditional law school. Attending law school online has the additional benefit of allowing you to “keep your day job” which prevents you from having to take loans for living expenses, and removes the worry of not having immediate employment upon graduation.
At St. Francis School of Law, tuition is only $6500 a year and students can be eligible for up to $2000 in scholarships their first year and $1000 in all following years. Under the Chen model, this would clearly fall in the “comfortably qualify” or “good investment” category. So if the cost of traditional law school has you second guessing a career in law, check out online schools … they have a lot to offer for less than a third of the price!