What the U.S. News & World Report Rankings Boycott Means for Transparency About Law School Debt
A few years ago, I wrote about the landscape of available data on law school debt. At that time, our main resources for law school debt information came from two sources: the U.S. Department of Education National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) and U.S. News & World Report. I explained that while NPSAS was useful for obtaining national student debt figures at the degree and program levels, U.S. News was the best resource for obtaining law school debt figures at the institution level. That same year, the Department of Education released a wealth of data on median earnings and debt for all Title IV institutions and their programs of study via the College Scorecard — broadening the availability of school-level J.D. debt figures. This year, the law school debt data landscape stands to change again, shrinking this time, due to the U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings boycott.
According to TaxProfBlog, forty-two law schools have announced they will not submit data to U.S. News this year due to longstanding concerns with the magazine’s methodology for measuring and ranking the quality of J.D. programs. As a result, debt information for 20% of ABA-approved law schools will not be available to pre-law students. By comparison, only nine law schools declined to report their graduates’ average debt last year and 11 declined to report the percentage of graduates who borrowed (both counts include the three law schools in Puerto Rico). Without this data, prospective law students will have limited, comparable information about law graduate debt loads across all ABA-approved law schools.
But what about the College Scorecard data? Could it fill the gap? In short, not fully. There are several limitations associated with the law school debt data derived from the College Scorecard, particularly the timing, reporting structure, accessibility, and completeness of the data:
- Timing: The Scorecard data is released annually, but the most recent debt information lags by three years. The data released in September 2022 provides debt information for law students who graduated in 2017-18 and 2018-19, pooled across both graduate cohorts.
- Reporting Structure: Scorecard data is reported for the main institution, so law schools with multiple campuses or institutions are reported in the aggregate. For instance, debt for graduates of Widener University’s two law schools — Delaware Law and Widener Law Commonwealth — are reported as a combined figure. However, the number of graduates, the percentage who borrow, and the average debt differs between the campuses, as observed in the 2022 U.S. News & World Report data.
- Accessibility: The College Scorecard interface is geared toward prospective undergraduate students, so it is cumbersome to navigate to information about law graduates. Additionally, independent law schools are not searchable in the tool given its focus on undergraduate institutions and programs.
- Completeness: The Department of Education uses cell suppression methods to protect the privacy of individuals and reduce risk of reidentification. As a result, some law schools’ debt data are not available. Additionally, the debt amounts reported do not include non-federal loans, nor do they include loans disbursed at prior institutions; so non-federal loan debt and debt borrowed at transfer students’ prior law schools are not included in the average debt calculation.
Because the Scorecard data cannot sufficiently offset the gaps in the U.S. News & World Report data, lack of transparency around law school debt is an unintended consequence of law schools boycotting the U.S. News survey.
Although legal education has made significant progress in improving consumer information regarding law school employment and bar exam outcomes, the same has not been true regarding law school financing. Although the American Bar Association (ABA) Annual Questionnaire requires law schools to submit information about J.D. loans, the information is not disseminated individually via the ABA Standard 509 reports, nor is an aggregate report provided. The most recent ABA statistics report on debt provides the average debt for all law students who were enrolled 10 years ago. Further, the information requested in the Annual Questionnaire is incomplete. Schools report debt amounts for all enrolled law students, but the information is not disaggregated by law school year. Since some law students receive conditional or other scholarships that only apply to the first year but not subsequent years of enrollment, borrowing levels and participation can change over time. To paint a fuller picture of the debt incurred for a J.D. degree, the ABA should collect average debt for law graduates and the percentage of graduates who borrowed during law school and include this information in the Standard 509 disclosures.
Data limitations on law school debt are a disservice to prospective law students, particularly students of color who are more likely to borrow for law school and borrow at higher amounts. In a recent survey we conducted with the ABA Young Lawyers Division, 51% of early career lawyers reported they lacked a clear understanding of the cost and debt associated with attending law school. And limited information about J.D. debt doesn’t serve law schools well, either. The Association of American Law Schools Before the J.D. study found that cost was the primary barrier to J.D. pursuit among undergraduate students — not lack of interest or preference for a non-legal career. Perhaps open communication about debt and law school financing could encourage further consideration of law school attendance among those with cost concerns.
As others have noted, transparency around law school debt should not lie within voluntary participation in a survey used to rank law schools. Instead, this information should be provided in each law school’s ABA Standard 509 report to serve the best interests of pre-law students and elucidate the financial realities of J.D. degree attainment.