June 08, 2012
Catholic law schools and the student debt crisis
Yesterday the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) released the 9-month employment data for the class of 2011. Only 65% of graduates obtained a job for which bar passage is required. Fewer than half of the graduates obtained a job in private practice. (Paul Campos estimates that the real numbers are much lower once we subtract law school-funded jobs and other temporary positions.) Salary data will be released in August, but I'm guessing that won't be a pretty picture either, as the restructuring of the legal services market continues to put downward pressure on salaries. Along with the bleak jobs picture, the class of 2011 emerged with a mountain of debt. The debt is every bit as high at Catholic law schools as anywhere else. Here is the average debt for 2011 graduates of Catholic law schools:
Catholic U ($142,000)
St. Thomas (FL) ($137,000)
San Francisco ($137,000)
Loyola (LA) ($132,000)
St. John's ($126,000)
Detroit Mercy ($124,000)
St. Louis University ($120,000)
Santa Clara ($117,000)
Loyola (NO) ($115,000)
Seton Hall ($113,000)
Loyola (Chi) ($112,000)
San Diego ($110,000)
St. Mary's ($109,000)
Seattle Univ. ($109,000)
Ave Maria ($108,000)
St. Thomas (MN) ($105,000)
Boston College ($100,000)
Notre Dame ($94,000)
In many ways, we want to be like everyone else -- strong scholarly cultures, top professors, a full roster of clinical opportunities, top-of-the-line student services, etc. And of course, we want to be highly ranked, so we give scholarship aid to high-LSAT/high-GPA applicants -- subsidizing that aid with the the full tuition paid by students with weaker entering profiles and (on average) weaker job prospects coming out. The growing gap between the salary and debt of law school graduates is getting plenty of attention now, though Catholic law schools have hardly been models for charting a path forward. If Catholic legal education is designed to equip students to practice law as a vocation, serving God by serving others, the crippling effect of huge student debt should be even more painful for us than for our colleagues at secular schools.
John Breen and Lee Strang are exploring the history of Catholic legal education, noting the lost opportunities over the last century when Catholic law schools could have charted a distinct path in terms of the substantive education they provided. By working so hard to be like everyone else, much of our capacity to be salt and light to the world of legal education was lost. When future generations of scholars look back at our era, will they see a similar lost opportunity for Catholic law schools to bear witness to the injustice of how we finance legal education?
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I know this is a sensitive subject, but if we were talking about any other institution, many would question the morality of misleading many students into providing for the cushy lifestyle of a law professor.
My understanding is that 30% of St.Thomas students graduated with a job. How do the faculty justify taking $150k from them?
Posted by: Dino Cicarelli | Jun 8, 2012 11:56:24 AM
Many of our graduates do not get hired until they pass the bar, which is why we tend to rely on the 9-month employment rate (as do many other schools). At nine months, 69% of our graduates had jobs that required bar passage. Also, our average debt is $105,000, not $150,000. We are working to improve on both fronts, and we try to be transparent with all applicants as they're making their decision to attend St. Thomas. Our employment data, for example, is here: http://www.stthomas.edu/law/currentstudents/careerandprofessionaldevelopment/2011placementstatistics/
Posted by: rob vischer | Jun 8, 2012 12:20:03 PM
Excellent post and a subject which certainly deserves greater attention.
What is particularly depressing is that these are "average" figures. So of course there are plenty of students with debt loads above the average figures above. I'm assuming, too, that these average figures don't include the debt from their undergraduate institutions.
One possibility for recent graduates without jobs to consider is contract management. A growing number of government contractors are hiring recent JDs as Contract Managers.
Posted by: Michael | Jun 8, 2012 12:55:40 PM
I would be interested to learn what % of those costs are re-distributed to other areas of the schools in question for funding less profitable (!) studies. For instance, I believe that at most universities, graduate students in the humanities are given free tuition (or stipends?) to study in their field. A rumor when I was in law school said that, not only were law students (and perhaps MBA students) paying for those professors and facilities in law or business, but that parts of the tuition were being transferred over to other programs to fund student stipends, etc.
Does anyone know if that is the case? And if so, is it universal or on a school-by-school basis?
Posted by: Jonathan | Jun 8, 2012 1:26:57 PM
Michael: you're correct that these figures don't include undergrad debt, and you're correct that the job descriptions of many JD recipients will be changing over the coming years. Tom Morgan and Richard Susskind have written books on this topic. Also check out Mitt Regan's article in Fordham Law Review on the disaggregation of legal services.
Jonathan: It varies school by school. The outgoing dean of U of Baltimore Law School shared his thoughts on this dynamic last year: http://abovethelaw.com/2011/07/a-law-dean-resigns-and-spills-the-beans-on-how-his-university-has-been-taking-advantage-of-law-students/
Posted by: rob vischer | Jun 8, 2012 2:23:12 PM
Jonathan, my sense is that the Baltimore situation was unusual.
Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jun 11, 2012 5:30:20 PM
I think this is the most important issue confronting Catholic Legal Education today, and one of the problems with this whole discussion is that we are often talking about raw numbers. And in looking at the raw numbers, we are not necessarily getting a real understanding of the debt burden that is being carried by such students.
For example, Prof. Vischer responds to Dino with the following "At nine months, 69% of our graduates had jobs that required bar passage. Also, our average debt is $105,000, not $150,000." Well, that means 31% of the graduates did not have jobs within 9 months. Assuming the class size was 250 people, then about 77 folks did not have jobs after nine months. That's a lot of folks without jobs, particularly if they meet the average debt of $105,000. Yes, the debt is not 150k, but it still rises to the nominal level of a mortgage for an unsecured debt that cannot be discharged at bankruptcy.
And as for those folks who got jobs, the question is what do the jobs pay? And is it reasonable to assume that any of the highest paying jobs are conducive to what it would mean to be a "good" Catholic lawyer, a "good" human person while billing away the hours? What opportunities will these people have to forego in order to service such debt? Has the Catholic school created an indentured servant? Has the Catholic school created a situation of desperation in a student? In short, by inducing a $105k debt upon a student, has the Catholic school contributed to the moral wreck of that student, regardless of the student's state of employment?
The only reasonable debt burden I see on the scale posted above is Barry University at $41,000 per student. Although these folks probably do not have top job prospects, at a 41k debt, they're ability to be freemen and financially uncompromised professionals at the law is greater than their peers. Ironically, the Barry students in a sense have more opportunities with a lower debt burden, even if Barry doesn't have wannabe Yale-like qualities.
Posted by: CK | Jun 13, 2012 12:54:01 PM
corrected: "Although these folks probably do not have top job prospects, at a 41k debt, their ability to be freemen and financially uncompromised professionals at the law is greater than their peers."
Posted by: CK | Jun 13, 2012 12:57:09 PM