Every once in a while, I read something so smart it makes me wish I’d written it. In today’s Washington Post, David Lat of Above The Law suggests that the federal government either stop lending people money to go to law school or “impose per-student or per-school caps on loan amounts” as a way of forcing law schools to lower their tuition.
Let’s consider what would happen if the government actually adopted the most radical of Lat’s proposals and simply stopped lending people money for law school. Surely a lot fewer people would go to law school. Law schools would, as Lat writes, be forced to lower tuition, but they wouldn’t lower it to zero. A lot of people would not be able to afford law school, even at the reduced prices, and would not be approved for private loans. These people simply would not go to law school. This is a good thing, because law schools currently enroll and graduate way too many people in comparison to the actual demand for new lawyers. In 2012 and 2013, law schools produced 46,364 and 46,776 graduates respectively, but only 57% of those graduates obtained full-time jobs requiring bar passage.
Inevitably, some law schools would be forced to close. Again, this is a good thing. This country doesn’t need 200 law schools, and unfortunately, there are a lot of predatory law schools with dismal employment statistics. (Lat mentions that just 22.9 percent of Cooley Law School’s 2013 graduates got jobs as lawyers.)
The main argument for preserving the current system of taxpayer-subsidized legal education goes something like this: fairness, blah blah blah, elitism, blah blah blah, opportunity. (Maybe throw in something about underserved communities.) The idea is that without federal loans, only people who are rich or “elite” would be able to go to law school, and that’s not fair. Rich people could still go to law school because they could just pay for it, as they do now. “Elite” people–for example, those admitted to T14 law schools–could still go to law school because private lenders would happily loan them money based on their earning potential. Everyone else would be screwed.
The problem with this argument is that way too many people are screwed under the current system; they’re just screwed differently. Instead of being told they can’t go to law school, they’re told they can, as long as they don’t mind borrowing $150,000, and they don’t realize until it’s too late that their job prospects are terrible.
There is no inalienable right to a legal education. It’s not something that should be accessible to anyone, regardless of one’s ability to pay or demonstrated potential for success.
In the interest of full disclosure, I financed my legal education through a combination of grants, personal savings, and yes, federal student loans. (OH THE HYPOCRISY! Federal loans for me, but not for thee!) How do I sleep at night? Well, I went to Michigan, and my predictors suggested–correctly, it turned out–that I would do OK there. Doing OK at Michigan Law in the late 1990s and early 2000s meant a virtually guaranteed six-figure salary. My combined debt from undergrad and law school was around $110,000, and I paid it off in five years. The federal government made money off its loans to me. Had there been no federal student loans available when I entered law school in 1999, presumably some private lender would have been happy to loan me money for law school.