Average Law School Debt

Report Highlights:

  • $160,000 is the average cumulative debt among law school graduates.
  • 74.1% of law school students graduate in debt.
  • $118,400 is the average amount students borrow just to attend law school.
  • $155,300 is the average amount borrowed to attend one of the top 10 law schools.

With rising tuition rates and student loan debt at an all-time high, the average law school debt has risen astronomically. As a result, enrollment has plunged to its lowest point since 1973, and fewer students are willing to borrow money to attend school. Among new graduates, fewer than 1-in-4 say their legal education was worth the financial cost.

Average Law School Debt Statistics

In recent decades, the average law school debt has increased 4 times faster than the rate of inflation. This has put tremendous strain on new law school graduates, especially those working in the public sector, where the average income is 38% lower than the it is in the private sector. While discount programs initiated in the last few years are intended to curb the financial burden of law school, the American Bar Association (ABA) reports that stagnate incomes and disparities among new law school graduates has a tremendous impact on student debt and repayment.

  • 45% of law school students begin their post-secondary education in debt.
  • 40% of indebted law school graduates say they owe more than they did at graduation.
  • 100% of law school graduates from Florida A&M University are in debt.
  • $61,500 is the average amount they owe.
  • At 41%, University of Detroit Mercy law school graduates have the least amount of debt.
  • $123,828 is the average amount borrowed.
  • 83% of graduates from Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles borrowed an average of $201,967 for their education.
  • $55,186 is the lowest average debt, owed by 74% of graduates from Rutgers.
  • 48% of indebted lawyers have postponed or decided not to have children due to their law school debt.
  • 28.8% of new lawyers decided to postpone marriage or remain unwed as a result of their debts, and 55.6% have put off purchasing property.
  • 17% of indebted law school graduates choose a job that will give them a better chance of loan forgiveness than the job they actually wanted.
Snapshot: Law School Graduate Indebtedness
Institution% Indebted GraduatesAverage Amount Borrowed
Florida A&M University100%$61,500
Southwestern Law School83%$201,967
Rutgers, SUNJ74%$55,186
Duke University68%$143,774
Georgetown University66%$166,164
Cornell University66%$154,195
Columbia University65%$172,656
Yale University62%$134,763
Yeshiva University (Cordozo)62%$118,304
Boston College58%$117,291
University of Detroit Mercy41%$123,828

Law School Debt Across Demographics

The burden of student loan debt is unevently distributed among demographics such as age groups, race or ethnicity, sex or gender, and even from state to state. According to the ABA, women and minority law school graduates bear an inordinate percentage of student debt, much of it due to income disparities. The ABA considers this such an issue, in fact, that they recommend law school students and practicing lawyers take the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which was developed at Harvard as a method of gauging racial bias in test takers.

  • Black or African American law school graduates loan debts are 97% higher on average than white law school graduates.
  • 15% of law school students and just 5% of practicing lawyers are Black or African American.
  • Hispanic or Latino graduates owe 49% more on average than their white peers.
  • 13% of law school students and 5% of lawyers are Hispanic or Latino.
  • On average, white law school graduates owe 17% less than the average law school student debt;
  • 62% of law school students and 86% of all practicing lawyers are non-Hispanic whites.
  • There is not enough data available to measure the average debt among Asian students;
  • 10% of law school students and 2% of lawyers are Asian.
  • $75,000 is the median starting salary for male law school graduates while women start at $70,000; this ultimately affects their repayment rates.

Student Borrowing and Repayment

The amount a student borrows to attend school is never the amount they ultimately pay. While student loans generally don’t require payments until graduation, interest on those loans begins to accrue immediately.

  • Some indebted students use 75% of their discretionary income to pay back student loans.
  • 57% of students work while attending law school to pay tuition, fees, and debts.
  • 78%-95% of law students are working full-time within a year of graduation.
  • Most students grossly underestimate how much they’ll ultimately pay in student loan debt.
  • Just 23% of indebted law school graduates say their degree was worth the financial cost.
  • Degree satisfaction may or may not be linked to student debt; though the average medical school debt
  • exceeds the average law school debt by 74%, indebted medical school graduates are more than twice as likely to consider their degree worth the debt.

Federal Loans and Repayment

The Department of Education (ED) Office of Federal Student Aid supplies Federal Grad PLUS loans, which is the most common federal student loan among students pursuing post-graduate education, including law degrees. Grad PLUS loans carry a 5.3% interest rate for the 2020-2021 academic year.

  • $56,900 is the average starting salary for a law school graduate working in the public sector.
  • $91,200 is the average starting salary for those in the private sector.
  • 10% of one’s gross income is the ideal amount to put toward paying off debts according to guidelines issued by the U.S. Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB).
  • It is impossible for the average lawyer working in the public sector to pay off federal student loans if they follow CFPB recommendations and guidelines.
  • 26 years is how long it will take the average lawyer working in the public sector to pay off their loans if they use 20% of their income.
  • 50 years is how long it will take a lawyer working in the private sector to pay off their loans following CFPB guidelines.
  • A maximum of 36% of all income should go toward paying off debt, as federal guidelines recommend.
  • Graduates of the Florida Coastal School of Law borrowed an average of $182,200; their median starting salary is $35,300.
  • At 5.63, FCSL graduates with the worst debt-to-income ratio of among all law school graduates.
  • It will take 27 years for the average FCSL graduate to pay off their amount borrowed, assuming 36% of their income goes toward repayments.
  • In that time, they’ll pay $160,600 in interest.
  • That’s 47% of the grand total of $342,800.
  • Stanford graduates get the best deal in terms of debt-to-income ratios; their median starting salaries are $156,700 while the average amount borrowed is $119,900.
Average Law School Loan Repayment Timeline Assuming a 5.3% APR
Average DebtMedian Salary% IncomeMonthly PaymentYears to Zero DebtTotal Cost
$160,000$56,90010%$474NA*NA
20%$94825.9$294,300
36%$1,70710.1$207,000
$91,20010%$76050.2$458,200
20%$1,52011.8$215,700
36%$2,7365.7$185,500

*This payment does not cover the loan’s accrued interest, making repayment an impossibility.

Private Loans and Repayment

Private loan interest rates are generally much higher than those of federal loans. Some of them carry an APR of over 12%. There are very few statistics available regarding private loans because there is no centralized regulatory entitiy collecting data.

  • If their total educational debt all came from private loans, no law school graduate could afford to repay that debt and follow CFOB recommendations and guidelines.
  • An average graduate would owe a minimum payment of $986.66 just to cover the interest on their loans.
  • If they they made regular monthly payments of $987, they could be debt free in 81 years.
  • For an average law school graduate working in the public sector, that’s 33.6% of their income.
  • Their grand total payment would be over $950,000; 87.5% of it would be interest.
  • A Top 10 graduate would owe minimum monthly payments of $1,294.17 in order to be out of debt within 130 years.
  • That’s 44% of their income if they work in the public sector, and they would ultimately pay over $1.8 million in interest alone.
  • That would be 92.3% of their grand total payment of over $2 million.
  • It would not possible for an FCSL graduate to ever pay off an educational debt in private loans.
Average Law School Loan Repayment Timeline Assuming a 10% APR
Average DebtMedian Salary% IncomeMonthly PaymentYears to Zero DebtTotal Cost
$160,000$56,90010%$474NANA
20%$948NANA
36%$1,70715.3 years$312,500
$91,20010%$760NANA
20%$1,52021.1$384,100
36%$2,7366.8$220,300

Law School Tuition and Fees

In the last 35 years, the financial cost of attending law school has increased 4 times faster than the value of the U.S. dollar. In 2015, the ABA launched a task force to deal with the national student debt burden, resulting in some of the discount programs that have helped supplement student tuition level off the average financial burden in recent years.

  • $63,000 is the average annual cost to attend a Top 10 law school.
  • $50,000 is the average annual cost of attending a private law school.
  • Public law schools charge an annual rate of $28,300 for in-state students; out-of-state students pay $41,700.
  • $72,465 is the annual tuition at Columbia University, making it the most expensive law school in the country.
  • $13,134 is how much in-state law students pay to attend the University of the District of Columbia (Clarke), the lowest tuition of any law school.
  • The average law school tuition has increased by $42,600 over the past 35 years; that’s an increase of 579%.
  • Adjusting for inflation, the average law school tuition has increased by $32,279 over the past 35 years.
  • That’s a 182% increase, with an annual growth rate of 0.6%.
  • Before inflation, the annual growth rate was 16.6%; the annual growth rate of the U.S. dollar was 4.0%.

Sources

  1. U.S. News, Which Law School Graduates Have the Most Debt?
  2. CNBC, Only 23% of Law School Grads Say Their Education was Worth the Cost
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator
  4. U.S. News, See the Price, Payoff of Law School Before Enrolling
  5. University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, The Crisis of the American Law School
  6. Law School Transparency, Data Dashboard
  7. U.S. Department of Education (ED) Office of Federal Student Aid (OFSA), Understand How Interest is Calculated and What Fees are Associated with Your Federal Student Loan
  8. Calculator.net, Financial Calculator
  9. U.S. Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB), Debt-to-Income Calculator
  10. ED OFSA, Direct PLUS Loans are Federal Loans that Graduate or Professional Students Can Use to Help Pay for College or Career School
  11. New York State Higher Education Services Corporation, Private Student Loan Comparison Tool
  12. American Bar Association (ABA), Disparities in Student Loans
  13. ABA, Profile of the Legal Profession
  14. Gallup, Few MBA, Law Grads Say Their Degree Prepared Them Well
  15. AccessLex Legal Education Data Deck