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ANALYSIS: 1st-Generation Law Grads Have More Debt, Survey Finds

Feb. 7, 2022, 7:17 PM

Bloomberg Law’s 2021 Law School Preparedness Survey results show that nearly half of respondents have amassed at least $50,000 in law school-related debt—and debt levels are higher for those who came from families with lower educational attainment levels.

To counterbalance this, law schools should consider an applicant’s status as a first-generation law student and their family’s educational attainment—among other relevant factors—when determining financial aid and scholarships for their incoming classes.

The Law School Debt Landscape

Overall, law school debt varied greatly among respondents whose families’ education levels ranged from less than high school to law school graduates. More than one-quarter (26%) reported having (or, for current students, expecting to have) no debt at graduation, 28% reported $100,000 or more, and the remainder fell somewhere in the middle. The survey’s 1,143 respondents include attorneys, law school students, law school faculty, and law librarians.

A number of factors influence law student debt levels, such as family income and support, availability of scholarships and financial aid, cost of law school tuition, and cost of living in the area where an individual goes to law school.

Familial Education May Impact Debt Levels

Survey results suggest that another factor—a family’s level of educational attainment—may impact student debt levels. Respondents who were the first in their family to attend high school, college, or law school had higher levels of debt than those who were not the first in their family to reach these respective levels of educational attainment.

For those with familial education levels at less than the high school level, 39% reported amassing at least $100,000 in law school-related debt—8 percentage points greater than respondents whose familial education level reached this level (31%).

The trend is similar, but less dramatic, for first-generation college attendees and first-generation law school attendees. Respondents in these categories were more likely than their non-first-generation counterparts to report amassing at least $100,000 in law school-related debt by 3 percentage points and 5 percentage points, respectively.

On the other end of the debt spectrum, only 16% of first-generation high school attendees reported completing law school debt-free. By comparison, respondents who completed law school debt-free accounted for 18% of first-generation college students, 26% of first-generation law school students, and 33% of respondents who were not the first in their family to attend law school.

Higher Familial Education Can Mean More Resources

Because access to education and household income are often intertwined, familial educational attainment can understandably have an impact on debt levels experienced by law school graduates.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that the median weekly income of professional degree holders ($1,893) is $588 higher than those with a bachelor’s degree, $1,112 higher than those with a high school diploma, and $1,274 higher than those without a high school diploma.

This disparity in income between familial education levels may explain why law students with lower levels of familial education often amass more debt and are less likely to graduate debt-free. Their families may have fewer resources to help with and defray the cost of law school, potentially increasing overall debt burdens upon graduation.

Additionally, families with higher levels of educational attainment (and likely higher incomes) may be able to more easily afford LSAT preparation courses, potentially leading to increased LSAT scores and better scholarships, lowering the need to borrow as much as someone with less financial assistance. They may also have more access to tutoring during their pre-law school studies, greater abilities to take unpaid or low-paying internships, and additional time to study if they did not need to work in college — all of which can help improve chances of receiving more financial support from a law school.

Granted, this doesn’t mean that all families with higher levels of educational attainment or higher income always produce law students with lower levels of debt. However, the data show that higher levels of familial educational attainment do generally correlate with lower debt burdens among law school graduates overall.

Because of this family-related financial disparity, law schools should consider applicants’ familial levels of educational attainment when granting scholarships and financial aid to their prospective students. Considered with other relevant factors, this can help law schools narrow the debt gap among law students and provide more prospective students with a fair shot at graduating with a more amendable level of student debt.

Related content is available for free on our In Focus: Lawyer Well-Being page. Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content on our Surveys, Reports & Data Analysis, Legal Operations, and In Focus: Lawyer Development pages.

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