These 30 law schools became more affordable in the last 3 years

There's one area of legal education that, in my view, has been under-examined: student debt. Some look at the non-discounted cost of legal education, but that's not really helpful because there are plenty of reasons that this cost is not the true cost (e.g., scholarships and tuition assistance). Others look at tuition increases or decreases, but it suffers from the same problem: we can't tell if the changes are falling on students or not.

Student debt is only a part of the story, of course, but it's one of the most significant barriers to legal education. Lower debt tends to give students more flexibility in pursuing careers, or less urgency in finding desirable employment outcomes.

The U.S. News & World Report has ranked schools by average debt load among students graduating with debt for several years. I thought I would try to examine the trend in that data over the last three years. That is, in this economic environment, which schools have responded in a way that minimizes, or even decreases, the typical debt a student graduates with? In a time of reduced donations and a prolonged economic downturn, where did the brunt of the cost fall?

I decided to examine the difference in the average student debt loads from 2009 to 2012. There are a number of complications and assumptions I had to make.

First, a substantial number of students, usually 10% to 20% at most schools, graduate with no law school debt. That could be because they are independently wealthy or come from a wealthy family willing to finance the education; they could have substantial scholarship assistance; they could earn income during school or during the summers; they could live in a low cost-of-living area, or live frugally; or some combination of these and other factors. It's worth noting that several thousand students graduate each year without any debt.

I started with the 2009 data and adjusted for inflation by increasing the debt load by 7%.

I then took the percentage change in the 2012 average debt load from the 2009 inflation-adjusted average debt load. Schools with a negative percentage change saw a decrease in the average debt load over the last three years. The percentage may be somewhat deceptive, because at a very low-cost school, a modest increase in debt load may appear, on a percentage basis, much higher than comparable increase at a high-cost school.  A $10,000 increase in debt at a school that previously had just $20,000 in debt looks like 50%; at a school with $100,000 in debt, just 10%. But I thought percentage would still be the most useful.

I then decided to discount the average debt load at each institution each year by the percentage of students who incurred no debt. A school may simply be admitting more independently-wealthy students, or students with substantial work savings, so that fewer graduate without debt; or, it may be handing out more scholarships to help more students graduate debt-free. On the whole, I thought factoring them into the total would be a better way of evaluating the affordability. (This is, of course, not to say that law school is "costless" for people who graduate debt free!)

The averages are not precise, either, for individuals. The average may be artificially high if a few students took out extremely high debt loads that distorted the average, or artificially low if a few students took out nominal debt loads that distorted the average.

These figures cannot be read in isolation. For instance, in the spreadsheet, one public school saw one of the highest percentage increases in student debt at 238%. But the 2009 total was just under an inflation-adjusted $24,000, and its new total of $68,000 is still one of the lowest in the country, particularly when one factors in its relatively good employment outcomes. Or, there are several schools that had astronomical student debt loads in 2009 and saw modest increases through 2012, which may not be indicative of some praiseworthy trait in 2012.

For some schools, there is so substantial a difference between the 2009 numbers and the 2012 numbers that I wonder if there is some one-off from either year that may be responsible, or a reporting error to USNWR.

When I ran the calculations, 30 schools came out as "more affordable." That is, there were 30 schools whose 2012 average student debt load, discounting the percentage of students who incurred no debt, was lower than the 2009 inflation-adjusted student debt load, discounting the percentage of students who incurred no debt. I also decided to include below 10 schools whose 2012 average student debt load was 2.5% higher, or less. (I thought that, given the closeness of the figures, being within 2.5% of the 2009 debt load, was good enough even if the school was not, strictly speaking, "more affordable.")

Change in law student debt loads, 2009 to 2012

Villanova -19.6%

Akron -17.5%

Elon -14.8%

Penn -14.0%

Western State -13.7%

Emory -13.1%

Minnesota -11.7%

North Dakota -10.9%

Barry -10.6%

Tulane -10.3%

St. Thomas MN -9.7%

Southern Illinois -9.7%

Baylor -9.6%

Vanderbilt -8.8%

South Dakota -8.5%

Montana -8.4%

UConn -8.3%

Pepperdine -8.0%

Illinois -7.9%

Gonzaga -7.3%

Albany -5.6%

Arkansas -5.2%

Mississippi -4.6%

Wisconsin -4.5%

Penn State -4.3%

Chicago -3.7%

SMU -3.3%

GWU -1.9%

BU -0.5%

Catholic -0.3%

Roger Williams 0.3%

St. John's 0.3%

W&L 0.4%

San Diego 1.0%

DePaul 1.1%

Harvard 1.2%

Loyola Marymount 1.8%

Texas 1.8%

American 2.0%

Notre Dame 2.1%

Observations from these figures

These observations are fairly general in nature, and I don't know that too much should be read into any of them--if they are even noteworthy.

First, two schools, Villanova and Illinois, had relatively public law school-related scandals in the last few years. Neither happened before the Class of 2012 was admitted to law school, but it may be that tuition or scholarships were adjusted in a particular way to entice students to stay.

Second, a few "elite" schools (e.g., Harvard, Chicago, Penn, Texas, Vanderbilt) helped keep debt loads stable, or eased them, suggesting that not all elite schools are, shall we say, inelastic in their tuition demands on students.

Third, there appears to be some notable regionalism. The Midwest (Akron, Chicago, DePaul, Illinois, Minnesota, Notre Dame, St. Thomas, Southern Illinois, Wisconsin), private schools in southern California (Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, San Diego, Western State), New England (BU, Harvard, Roger Williams, UConn), the DC-area (American, Catholic, GWU, W&L), and most of the strongest Texas schools (Baylor, SMU, Texas) saw increasing affordability. In contrast, northern California (zero), New York City (St. John's), and Florida (Barry) saw virtually no schools listed.

Fourth, despite the fact that many states have cut funding flagship schools, a number of these institutions are public schools that still saw declines in student debt loads.

I recognize that "more affordable" is a relative term. It may be that some of these schools are still "overpriced" or "underpriced." And, as mentioned earlier (and it bears repeating), this is just one factor to take into consideration among many others, including faculty quality, employment outcomes, and regional preferences.

If you'd like to look at the data, see this Google Doc. There are a few useful ways you may want to sort it. I arranged by "Dsct diff," which includes the discount rate for the percentage of students who incurred no debt. If you want the absolute rate, sort by "Diff." If you want the raw money figures rather than the percentages, sort by "$ diff" or "$ dsct diff."