I’ve said it before, and it’s worth repeating: if I were in college today, there is no way — none — that I would consider law school. It’s enormously expensive and the job prospects for graduates from all but the most elite law schools is bleak.
Of course, that doesn’t stop people from going to law school. And, for the for-profit law schools, it creates opportunities to make some serious coin.
Take, for instance, Florida Coastal School of Law. According to this editorial in the New York Times, in 2013, the median LSAT score of students admitted to Florida Coastal School of Law was in the bottom quarter of all test-takers nationwide. According to the test’s administrators, students with scores this low are unlikely to ever pass the bar exam.
That doesn’t stop Florida Coastal from charging nearly $45,000 a year in tuition. Ninety-three percent of the school’s 2014 graduating class of 484 had debts, the average of which was almost $163,000, which was higher than all but three law schools in the country. “In short,” the Times writes, “most of Florida Coastal’s students are leaving law school with a degree they can’t use, bought with a debt they can’t repay.”
Continues the Times, “If this sounds like a scam, that’s because it is. Florida Coastal, in Jacksonville, is one of six for-profit law schools in the country that have been vacuuming up hordes of young people, charging them outrageously high tuition and, after many of the students fail to become lawyers, sticking taxpayers with the tab for their loan defaults.”
For-profit schools are not the only offenders. A majority of American law schools, which have nonprofit status, are increasingly engaging in such behavior, and in the process threatening the future of legal education. Why? The Times explains:
“The most significant explanation is also the simplest — free money. In 2006, Congress extended the federal Direct PLUS Loan program to allow a graduate or professional student to borrow the full amount of tuition, no matter how high, and living expenses. The idea was to give more people access to higher education and thus, in theory, higher lifetime earnings. But broader access doesn’t mean much if degrees lead not to well-paying jobs but to heavy debt burdens. That is all too often the result with PLUS loans.”
So what was the result of this free flow of federal loans? Law schools jacked up tuition and accepted more students, even after the legal job market stalled and shrank in the wake of the recession. Consider: Forty-three percent of all 2013 law school graduates did not have long-term full-time legal jobs nine months after graduation, and the numbers are only getting worse. In 2012, the average law school graduate’s debt was $140,000, 59 percent higher than eight years earlier.
I’ve blogged before on the drastic drop in law school applications since 2011, which has made a bad thing worse: to maintain enrollment numbers, law schools have had to lower their admissions standards and take even more unqualified students. These students then fail to pass the bar in alarmingly high numbers — in 2014, the average score on the common portion of the test was the lowest in more than 25 years.
The irony of the situation is tragic: “Even as law schools are churning out unqualified graduates stuck under hopeless mountains of debt, millions of poor and lower-income Americans remain desperate for quality legal representation. Public defenders around the country rely on minuscule budgets to handle overwhelming caseloads. In many cases, the lawyers are so overworked that they cannot provide constitutionally adequate representation for criminal defendants. Civil legal services that help people with housing, immigration and workplace issues are even more scarce, with hardly any public support.”
Perhaps, as the Times suggests, federal dollars now lining the law schools’ coffers might be better spent funding legal services organizations.
And a lot of college graduates, in the meantime, should seriously consider whether a career in law is the direction they want to go.