August 23, 2019

What Do We Know About Law Student Indebtedness?

Tiffane Cochran - Managing Director, Research
Research and Data


One of the most frequently asked data questions posed to AccessLex is “What is the average debt of a law school graduate?” Although it is a straightforward question, the answer is a bit nuanced and can vary depending on the data source.

When approached for law school debt figures or preparing the AccessLex Legal Education Data Deck, our team references the two main sources of information on law student indebtedness—the U.S. Department of Education’s National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) and U.S. News & World Report (USNWR).1 NPSAS is helpful if you are looking for comparative information at the national level on borrowing for college, law school and other graduate and professional programs. For instance, our policy team recently used NPSAS data to demonstrate the potential impact of Grad PLUS loan restrictions on students based on their program and race/ethnicity. However, USNWR is the best resource for obtaining law school borrowing information at the institutional level.

According to the most recent NPSAS data, law school students who graduated in 2015-16 and used loans to finance their education borrowed an average of $134,250 in undergraduate and graduate school debt. With interest, the average cumulative amount they owed at graduation was $142,870 (Figure 1). Borrowers made up roughly 72 percent of the 2015-16 law school graduate cohort (Figure 2). Those who borrowed for their undergraduate education (48 percent of the cohort) averaged $23,420 in college loans and those who borrowed for law school (71 percent of the cohort) averaged $116,890 in graduate debt. These figures are estimated based on individual student-level data from a national sample of postsecondary students and graduates. In the past, NPSAS figures have been collected and reported every four years; moving forward, figures will be available in two-year increments.

Avg Cumulative Borrowing Amounts for Law Grads, 2015-16

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16). Computation by NCES PowerStats.
Notes: Borrowing amounts are shown in nominal dollars and are not adjusted for inflation. NPSAS reports all graduate school loans cumulatively, so graduate amounts may also reflect debt law graduates accrued for other graduate degrees prior to earning their J.D. These data include law school graduates who may not have been eligible for Title IV loans.

On the other hand, USNWR annually reports figures on average law school debt at the law school level. Although most ABA-approved law schools provide this data, some do not. Of the 192 institutions ranked in the 2019 Best Law School list, 186 reported average debt figures for the class of 2018 to USNWR. School-reported average debt amounts for recent graduates ranged from $50,900 to $212,580, with the percentage of borrowers ranging from 34 to 100 percent. The average debt amount reported was $107,800, and the average reported percentage of graduates who borrowed was 76.5 percent.

Due to methodological differences, these figures differ slightly from those shared in a recent NerdWallet article, which reported that law school students graduate with $145,550 in education debt, including undergraduate loans (Table 1). The overall debt figure cited in NerdWallet includes accrued interest and is inflation-adjusted for the year 2017, while our figures are shown in nominal dollars (i.e., 2015-16) for the purposes of this blog post. When updating the data deck, we adjust for inflation to better compare borrowing trends over time.

The same article also cited law school-specific debt figures from Law School Transparency, which reported that 75 percent of law students who graduated in 2018 borrowed, on average, $115,481 to pay for law school. In the case of Law School Transparency, their calculations are based on weighted averages, which account for the size of the graduating class and percentage of borrowers at each law school. Instead, we take a more straightforward approach by calculating the simple average.


Table 1: Comparison of NerdWallet and AccessLex Debt Figures

Debt Type



Average Cumulative Debt at Graduation (Undergrad and Law School), 2015-16

(Amount owed with interest, in 2017 dollars)

(Amount owed with interest, in nominal dollars)

Average Law School Debt in 2018 (Total)



Average Law School Debt in 2018 (Private)



Average Law School Debt in 2018 (Public)




Understanding the mechanics of these calculations is helpful. But despite these nuances and varying methodologies, the figures themselves are useful in providing perspective on how much recent law graduates are borrowing to fund the total cost of their postsecondary education. Law student indebtedness is one piece of a much broader landscape of law school affordability and value, and the rising cost of postsecondary education overall. Prospective law students should consider their own financial means, chances of receiving scholarship aid, career objectives and income trajectory after earning a law degree when assessing their ability to pay for law school.

For more AccessLex resources and publications related to law school affordability, visit the links provided below.

AccessLex Financial Education Resources for Students

Legal Education Data Deck

A Framework for Thinking About Law School Affordability

The Price of Graduate and Professional School: How Much Students Pay

Financing Graduate and Professional School: How Students Pay

Graduate and Professional School Debt: How Much Students Borrow


*Thanks to Andrew Iraola, Research Analyst, for contributing data for this post.



1 The American Bar Association formerly provided average law school indebtedness figures, but suspended reporting average debt statistics in 2013.

2 Source: NPSAS:16. Computation by NCES PowerStats.

3 The AccessLex average law school debt figures for 2018 are sourced from the U.S. News & World Report 2019 Best Law Schools rankings. NerdWallet’s figures were sourced from Law School Transparency. Differences are likely methodological. AccessLex used normal averages, Law School Transparency used weighted averages.