Cost of attendance
In-depth analysis on law school costs including tuition, grants, debt, cost of living, and more.
Law School Debt in the United States
The average amount borrowed by law school graduates who borrow declined in 2017, in nominal dollars, after increasing each year since in 2010. This may be explained by increased tuition discounting, a stronger economy that permitted would-be students to save a bit more, and a stronger summer associate market for students with access to those high-paying summer jobs. Since then, the average amount borrowed has increased modestly. Accounting for inflation, the average amount has declined by more than 12% since 2010.
An additional explanation is that more affluent students are attending law school. Over this same time period, as sticker tuition increased steadily, the percentage of law school graduates who borrowed to attend law school steadily decreased. Higher prices, even with available student loan hardship programs from the federal government, may have disproportionately scared off students who would need to borrow. Indeed, as news of financial difficulty for law school graduates spread in 2011 and 2012, the decline in the percentage borrowing accelerated. Law school enrollment dropped a dramatic 11.4% from 2011 to 2012, and the percentage borrowing did too—nearly five points between 2014 graduates and 2015 graduates (who started in 2011 and 2012, respectively).
While the surge in students not borrowing could be a coincidence, it may also indicate that law schools are becoming even less socioeconomically diverse. Non-borrowing wealthy students do not bring the average amount borrowed down. However, even with larger tuition discounts, law school is not affordable for students from upper-middle class families, let alone those from less affluent backgrounds. As such, the slowed increase in the amount borrowed up through 2016 may also be explained by a greater proportion of students from affluent families who need to borrow, but receive some familial help.
Whether at public or private law schools, many students take out life-changing debt to attend. While borrowing averages provide information about the entire population, they don't aptly convey the challenges faced by individual students. Some have undergraduate debt; others take out private loans to cover expenses related to taking the bar exam. Further, a vast borrowing range lurks beneath school-wide and nation-wide averages. A $130,000 average obscures students who borrow more than $250,000.
For all law school graduates, borrowing figures do not reflect interest that accumulates during school, which the government does not subsidize for law students. For 2023-2024, interest immediately began to accrue at 7.1% for Stafford Loans (up to $20,500 per year) or 8.1% for Graduate PLUS loans (up to the full cost of attendance) for students. A student who borrows $130,000 during school will owe $150,110 by the time the first payment is due six months after graduation, at which time any accumulated interest capitalizes.
That payment is $1,788 on the standard 10-year plan and $1,217 on a 20-year plan. One common-sense rule in student lending provides that students should not borrow more than they expect to earn after their first year. Law schools of all types make observing that rule difficult. The government, on the other hand, defines financial hardship for the Revised Pay As Your Earn ("REPAYE") federal hardship program as having a monthly student loan payment of more than 10% of discretionary income. This rule is even tougher to observe. Unless a borrower makes $203,000 or more, a person with a monthly loan payment of $1,540 faces financial hardship and qualifies for REPAYE.