Column: Debt and unemployment erode law school dreams

The road to law school takes many turns. Some people plan their lives around the opportunity to become a high-powered human rights lawyer. Others use attending law school as an excuse to justify their liberal arts degree. Either way, it’s become a business.

Following the expansion of the federal Direct PLUS Loan program in 2006, law schools around the country saw an opportunity to increase enrollment capacity and increase tuition. Students, many of them desperate for a chance to become more employable or just to stay out of the job market for a few more years, eagerly accepted the loans.

Presumably, a law degree helps you to get a job as a lawyer. At least, that’s what law schools want you to think.

Forty-three percent of all 2013 law graduates didn’t have a long-term, full-time job in law nine months after graduation. In 2012, the average law school student’s debt was $140,000.

The students who noticed the mismatch stopped enrolling in law school, which just meant that law schools lowered their admissions standards, accepting students who were definitely not qualified to pass the bar exam, regardless of the education they would receive. Instead, they’ll be saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, all for the crime of wanting a job they weren’t qualified for.

Law schools are hardly the only ones in higher education who are gaming the system. But it does need to stop, especially given the desperate need for lawyers in America to fight for civil legal services that provide people with housing, immigration and workplace support.

This need is practically ironic given the incredibly high unemployment rate for law school graduates. The problem is that these graduates are not qualified to be lawyers, so their debt remains.

Some schools are even offering their graduates money to withdraw from taking the bar exam, so as to not bring down the schools’ already rock-bottom numbers.

Distressingly, a new report from watchdog group Law School Transparency concluded that, last year, more than one-third of schools accredited by the American Bar Association admitted classes where at least 25 percent of students were at significant risk of failing the bar exam based on their LSAT scores.

This is ridiculous. If the goal of a law school is to prepare students to take the bar, possibly the worst way to go about it is by admitting people without a prayer of passing it from the beginning.

It’s not just dishonest — it’s dangerous.

Tying federal loan funding to performance by schools is not a unique provision. It already exists for for-profit law schools around the country. If the measure extended to nonprofit schools, however, as many of 50 percent of them could fail, based on a measure that considers debt-to-income ratios.

It probably seems redundant to tell college students that tuition rates are high and that student loans are crushing. But for many, law school is a last resort upon not finding a job: staving off entering the job market until it’s better by going back to school and presumably making yourself more marketable.

Vulnerable students are being extorted yet again, somehow thinking that all lawyers are wealthy or that a law degree guarantees you a job. It simply doesn’t guarantee anything anymore, which is why this issue deserves both public awareness and attention from the federal government.

Until then, taxpayers will be — yet again — footing the bill for a broken system of higher education.


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