As High Debt Among Law Students Increases, So Do Stress and Anxiety

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

The cost of a higher education has increased significantly over the last several years, and law school is no exception. But the proportion of law students who say they’re expecting to take on high levels of student loan debt has spiked in the last decade, according to a new report.

New data from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) shows that between 2006 and 2015, the proportion of students who expected to incur more than $100,000 in debt increased from 32 percent to 44 percent.

That increase was even more noticeable in certain institutional sectors and among different races. The percentage of law students at public institutions who expected to take on high levels of debt nearly tripled, from 11 percent in 2006 to 31 percent in 2015, compared with an increase from 38 percent to 50 percent among private law school students.

And while there were minimal gaps between students of different races in 2006 — between 31 percent and 35 percent of white, Asian, Latino, and African-American students expected high debt — the disparity widened significantly over the last decade. By 2015, nearly two-thirds of African-American students (61 percent) and more than half (56 percent) of Latino students expected to take on high levels of debt, compared with about 40 percent of white and Asian students.

In 2012, the average debt for private law school graduates was $127,000, according to the report, and $88,000 for public law school graduates.

"Both the extent of the increases and the uneven manner in which they have been distributed are concerning," said Aaron Taylor, director of LSSSE and an assistant professor of law at Saint Louis University School of Law, in a statement. "The data strongly suggest that while law school is more expensive across-the-board, the bulk of the increased costs is being born by students in the least favorable position to incur them."

The survey also focused on stress among law school students, which has increased alongside high levels of debt. The report said law students often experience higher levels of stress than other graduate and professional students, and that the stress has also been tied to higher levels of substance abuse.

According to the report, about three-quarters of students said concerns about their academic performance and workload caused high stress and anxiety, and more than half said concerns about job prospects and finances caused high stress and anxiety. Students’ reported stress and anxiety appeared to increase with expected debt levels.

"Much of the lore surrounding legal education is premised on its stress-inducing qualities. Everything from the oft-unsettling Socratic method of instruction to high-stakes exams are cited, if not celebrated, as emblematic rites of passage for those seeking to become lawyers," the report said. "So the fact that many law schools are now considering the effects of stress in the larger context of student health and wellness is significant. This attention is necessary and long overdue."


Publication Date: 3/16/2016

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