Debt has dropped for graduates at 49 schools

While the average debt for a law school graduate has continued to rise, 49 law schools reported lower debt numbers from 2012 to 2013.

The average debt for a law school graduate increased from $107,371 for the class of 2012 to $109,142 for the class of 2013, according to U.S. News & World Report, which collects debt information from law schools.

The John Marshall Law School, in Chicago, reported the largest drop among the 49 schools from 2012 to 2013, shrinking from $142,587 to $121,700. In 2011, it reported a debt of $165,178, meaning it has dropped 26 percent in two years.

School officials said the drop is partly related to a financial literacy program that has helped new students be more financially responsible.

“Along with scholarship amounts increasing, the Financial Aid Office implemented a mandatory financial literacy 90-minute session to our entering students,” said Yara Santana, director of financial aid at The John Marshall Law School. “The effect of the sessions had students emailing our offices, visiting our offices and calling my staff asking them to reduce their loan disbursements or to return a portion or the entire refund amount to the Department of Education.”

Duquesne University School of Law saw the second steepest drop, with debt falling from $128,057 in 2011 to $98,922 in 2013.

Twenty-nine of the 49 law schools that reported lower debt loads were private schools. 

Tuition did not drop at any of the schools during that time period, however. So it's unclear whether the debt drops are related to increased scholarships or other factors such as better financial literacy.

“It’s tough to tell whether it is just statistic noise or something more meaningful,” said Kyle McIntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, which tracks law school data. “It could be that law schools were targeting people with greater means and so they had to borrow less.”

McIntee also said averages can be misleading.

“You could have more people paying full freight [on tuition] and other people paying a lot less,” he said.

Lower debt loads helped six private schools make The National Jurist’s Best Value law school ranking this year, an unprecedented number. Normally, only one or two made the list.

The Best Value rankings assess tuition, debt, and cost of living, percent employed and bar passage rates. Schools must meet all criteria to be included.

Fourteen of the top 20 Best Value private law schools reported lower debts for the class of 2013 compared to the prior year’s class. This included Vanderbilt University Law School, which dropped debt from $124,493 to $114,411.

Comparing only schools that submitted debt information in all three years, private law schools increased debt from an average of $115,283 in 2011, to $121,744 in 2012, to $124,578 in 2013.

Public schools increased debt from $78,722 in 2011, to $85,056 in 2012, to $88,729 in 2013.

Experts expect the average debt to drop for the class of 2016, if not sooner, thanks to more aggressive scholarships on behalf of law schools.