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Law School Debt Crisis: The Student Reality

By Thomas Hale-Kupiec

            In a first year course, one of my professors took a jab at baristas, stating that as students from a Top 20 Law School, we would never have to experience our law degrees being worthless as this was a “smart” investment. Looking to the University of Minnesota website, the employment statistics imply that this is the case too. The median starting salary for recent graduates in the private sector is advertised as $110,000.1

Most graduates in the private sector are making over six-figures? That would certainly justify the University of Minnesota charging $68,536 for the annual cost-of-attendance (including solely a tuition figure of $50,372) for the majority of the students,2 even when the state’s median household income over the same period is only $59,863.3 Further, it would justify the University’s overhead of nearly $13 million for faculty members during the same period, with an average salary of $185,155;4 it would not matter that some professors may teach as few as a single, two or three-credit course (a total classroom time of two to three hours each week) per semester, coupled with personal interest research and (subsequent) publishing.

But have you spoken to your barista recently? Some are law students, or even law graduates.5 What is not being expressed is the utterly misleading nature of these numbers. Looking to the numbers being promulgated on the Law School website, there were 259 graduates belonging to the Minnesota Law Class of 2014, who had the opportunity to graduate approximately 550 days ago.6 Of these numbers, only about 7% are still unemployed.7 Delving deeper, however, these numbers start looking bleak. Of those employed, approximately 12% are employed part-time or under temporary contracts.8 This leaves about 80% of the class “well off,” correct?

No, no. The situation continues to spiral downward. Of the remaining 4/5 of the class, 107 graduates are in the public sphere averaging $46,709,9 or only about 78% of what the average Minnesota household makes.10 This salary does not even meet the estimated annual cost of living for a Minnesota family.11 Also worth noting: Only 45.3% of graduates are reporting income;12 it is impossible to know how this figure would shift if all graduates responded. However, these considerations fail to consider the loan burden of over $180,000 (plus interest) that comes with a University of Minnesota legal education,13 as it would knock these students well below the average household income.

But even if that’s the case, the private sector students are much better off, correct? Slightly. About 129 of these law students moved to the private sector.14 However, only 54.7% of graduates in the private sector reported data on salaries.15 Further, of these (approximately 70) graduates reporting salaries, a quarter students are making $65,000 or less.16 This leaves approximately 50 students (or about 1/5 of this class) who reported making enough money to adequate pay their student loans while maintaining a standard of living at approximately the average Minneapolis income.17 What does this mean? About the same number of people are unemployed or employed part-time as are able to afford monthly payments on their student loans (assuming scholarships and the aforementioned calculation, supra note 13). This is at a U.S. News & World Report “Top 20 Law School.”

This is only where the problem begins, though. While in law school, students face an even worse financial situation. Looking to the livings expenditures, a student can take out loans for $11,466 for room/board, $1000 for transportation, and $2,000 for personal/miscellaneous.18 This allots a student $14,466 to live during the law school cycle.19 The cost of living in Minneapolis-proper for one adult? $22,911, according to MIT’s “typical expenses” calculator.20 As a student, I have witnessed other students skipping meals simply to exist on this stipend if they did not arrive to law school with a hearty scholarship; this mirrors a national trend.21 Students also receive inadequate health care plans (which fail to cover the bare essentials of medically necessary insurance).22 It all adds up to a larger issue: Students are now unable to afford law school as previous generations could.23

What is the solution? The immediate answer is that tuition needs reduction, or rather, needed reduction years ago. How does one solve this issue? Many commentators claim that this is not possible due to law schools’ outrageous overhead. It absolutely is possible. Students should be able to connect with other practitioners through both law professors and the career centers. This is, for some reason, not occurring. Since the career center’s focus (and rightfully so) is to place graduates in jobs, professors should be vested with placing students in good jobs by connecting students with personal contacts. This has even been implied in e-mails to students (at least at the University of Minnesota) about why they should take certain courses.24

As this is not currently how professors are evaluated, I propose that this should be a metric of evaluation & retention in this era of student duress. Instead of outlandish salaries, professor referrals of new associates to firms should be linked to their pay; this is the point of professional school, right? To be in a professional career? If U.S. News is evaluating schools based on employment, professors in professional education should, similarly, be incentivized for efforts that comport with this new economic reality.25

Further, it seems more efficient for this to be the case. When a business is failing, generally businesses do not keep poorly reviewed and unmotivated employees on payroll. The reality is that law school professors are failing to connect students to practitioners, and instead, are leaving students to fend against each other and to overburden their respective career centers. This model is not sustainable.

This may not solve the barista problem, but at least it is a start. The law school business model is failing, and students are too busy working to talk about it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have 100 pages of reading and several writing assignments about legal theory due tomorrow.


[1] University of Minnesota Law School, 2014 Facts & Career Statistics (Mar. 15, 2015), https://www.law.umn.edu/career-center/2014-career-facts-statistics.

2 University of Minnesota Law School, Tuition and Financial Aide (2015), https://www.law.umn.edu/admissions/jd-admissions/tuition-financial-aid [hereinafter Tuition and Financial Aide] (showing that the total cost of attendance for a single, non-resident is $68,536); University of Minnesota Law School, Law School Profile (2015), https://www.law.umn.edu/admissions/jd-admissions/tuition-financial-aid [hereinafter Law School Profile] (showing that 69% of the Minnesota Law Class of 2017 are out-of-state residents).

3 United States Census Bureau, State & County QuickFacts: Minnesota (Oct. 14, 2015), http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/27000.html.

4 David Lat, How Much Does Your Law Professor Make? University of Minnesota Law School Edition (Jun. 10, 2013), http://abovethelaw.com/2013/06/how-much-does-your-law-professor-make-university-of-minnesota-law-school-edition/.

5 See Ameet Sachdev, Loans, lawsuits pile up as law school grads face worst job market in more than 30 years, Chicago Tribune (June 22, 2012), http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-06-22/business/ct-biz-0622-chicago-law-20120622_1_law-school-law-placement-job-market (“Previously, schools could aggregate their job data to include all employment, whether it was full-time or part-time, long-term or short-term, and required a law degree or didn't. That led to reporting employment rates well above 90 percent for the last decade even if some of the graduates were working as baristas at Starbucks”); see also Maxwell Kennerly, Baristas Count As Barristers: Law School Marketing Fraud Lawsuit Dismissed (Mar. 22, 2012), http://www.litigationandtrial.com/2012/03/articles/series/special-comment/baristas-as-barristers/ (“a graduate could be working part-time as a barista in Starbucks – or toiling away in any job – and be deemed employed in ‘business,’ although such employment is temporary and does not require a law degree”).

6 See University of Minnesota Law School, supra note 1.

7 Id.

8 Id.

9 Id.

10 United States Census Bureau, supra note 3.

11 Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Minnesota Cost of Living Study: 2015 Annual Report (2015), http://mn.gov/deed/images/Cost_of_Living_Study_Annual_Report.pdf.

12 University of Minnesota Law School, supra note 1.

13 Tuition and Financial Aide, supra note 2.

14 See University of Minnesota Law School, supra note 1.

15 Id.

16 Id.

17 Assuming a loan Balance of $180,000.00 (which is price-tag), a loan interest rate of 6.80%, and a loan term of 20 years, the monthly loan payment required would be $1,374.01 in 240 payments.

18 Tuition and Financial Aide, supra note 2.

19 Id.

20 Amy Glasmeier, Living Wage Calculation for Hennepin County, Minnesota (2015), http://livingwage.mit.edu/counties/27053.

21 See Tara Bahrampour, More college students battle hunger as education and living costs rise, Washington Post (Apr. 9, 2014), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/more-college-students-battle-hunger-as-education-and-living-costs-rise/2014/04/09/60208db6-bb63-11e3-9a05-c739f29ccb08_story.html.

22 Thomas Hale-Kupiec, Combating HIV/AIDS: Minnesota has serious access issues for students who need Truvada, MinnPost (June 15, 2015), https://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2015/06/combating-hivaids-minnesota-has-serious-access-issues-students-who-need-tru.

23 See generally The Editorial Board of the Washington Post, The Law School Debt Crisis, Washington Post (Oct. 24, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/25/opinion/sunday/the-law-school-debt-crisis.html; Laura Shin, How This Lawyer Ended Up With $350,000 In Debt And Near Poverty-Level Income, Forbes (Sept. 30, 2014), http://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2014/09/30/how-this-lawyer-ended-up-with-350000-in-debt-and-near-poverty-level-income/.

24 Email from Allan Erbsen, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, to the Minnesota Law Class of 2016, [LAW-2016] Spring 2016 Course Lottery, (Nov. 12, 2015, 8:38 am) (on file with author and members of the Minnesota Law Class of 2016) (“Reasons to Take Particular Classes. For any class that you are considering taking, you should ask yourself . . . Will this class help me get hired to do the kind of work I want to do?”).

25 Sam Flanigan & Robert Morse, Methodology: 2016 Best Law Schools Rankings, U.S. News & World Report (Mar. 9, 2015), http://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/articles/law-schools-methodology?int=9d0608.