Law school tuition for one year? $37,950
Room and board in Orange County, Calif.? $15,300
Personal expenses? $5,277
Books and supplies? $1,560
One year of law school, including living expenses? $63,000
Getting a quality legal education? Upwards of $140,000
You were expecting me to write “priceless” to last one, right? Ha. I’m not going to trivialize the cost of a law school education by turning it into a MasterCard commercial.
The truth is, law school costs money. Lots and lots of money. Scrooge McDuck pools and pools of money.
I knew that while applying to law school, but it was still a bit of a shock when I got my financial aid award letter from the Chapman University School of Law. At first I thought that maybe there was a decimal point missing somewhere, but no. The first year of school will in fact cost about the same as a really nice car, and tuition and living expenses for all three years would cost about the same as a house in some parts of California.
Given the cost of a legal education, it’s no surprise that many students who had their hearts set on public interest work go into high paying jobs in Big Law.
Still there are a few who opt to continue with their public interest plans, banking on federal or state programs that promise to forgive a portion of their debt if they choose public service fields.
According to a New York Times article published last week, about 7,500 teachers, nurses and public interest lawyers benefited from Kentucky’s loan forgiveness program since 2003, at a cost of $77 million.
But just how reliable are these programs?
In another article also published last week, the Times found that while federal programs are safe, many states’ loan forgiveness programs are tied to the state budget.
As a result, the Times says, states sometimes see stories like that of Adam and Katie Thomas:
“… teachers of special needs children, the Thomases had a combined $85,000 in student loans. Partway through the payback period on those loans, however, the forgiveness program in their state cut its annual subsidy from 20 percent of the couple’s total loan balance to just 1 percent. That pushed them so close to the edge financially that they decided to sell their home and move in with Ms. Thomas’s parents.”
If you consider that the average law student graduates with about $80,000 in debt, and the average public interest lawyer makes about $36,000, a career in public interest can turn students saddled with thousands of dollars in debt off.
I’m not certain of the type of law I want to practice once out of law school, but I am certain that I and other law school students want public interest law to be a viable and financially sound option when we do graduate.
Forget about the car industry, President Obama. Where’s the graduate student bailout? At the very least, those interested in serving the public interest should have the continued financial incentive to pursue that interest without fear that the programs they rely on will be cut back or canceled several years down the line.
Find more information on federal student loan forgiveness here.