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Law School Debt Finally on the Decline?

Don't tell those students who left law school in deeper debt a few years ago, but student debt may actually be declining now.

According to a new report, students at law schools across the country are graduating with less debt than three years ago. A Pepperdine Law School professor drew some conclusions from national rankings of 116 law schools, but cautioned that the results are based on averages.

"[T]his is hardly a statement about whether any particular law school is a 'good' value or whether the debt loads are appropriate," said Derek T. Muller. "It's simply a relative comparison of debt loads over three years."

With that caveat, here are a few observations:

Schools Are More Affordable

With adjustments for inflation, two thirds of the law schools showed lower student debt between 2013 and 2016. The largest decreases and lowest student debt occurred in the Midwest, as University of Iowa law school graduates saw the greatest drop in debt -- almost 41 percent.

Brigham Young University law students graduated with the lowest debt in 2013 and again in 2016 with an average of $40,246 in the new report. University of Kentucky, University of Nebraska and University of North Dakota law grads followed with average debts of about $45,000 and less.

On the other end of the spectrum, students at about one third of the law schools incurred more debt. Barry University jumped the highest -- 226 percent -- from $43,354 to $141,667 from 2013 to 2016.

"The averages are not precise, either, for individuals," Muller explained. "The average may be artificially high if a few students took out extremely high debt loads that distorted the average, or artificially low if a few students took out nominal debt loads that distorted the average."

Scholarships Add Up

In any case, the numbers show an overall decrease in law student debt. Muller said it could be that schools are competing for students with scholarships and so fewer students are borrowing less.

Paul F. Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, said that tuition at private universities declined by about 10 percent between 2011 and 2015. He told the ABA Journal that, excluding elite schools where tuition increased, the average decline was about 12.5 percent.

"When combined with a 23 percent decline in JD enrollment between 2011 and 2015, this indicates that total tuition revenue from JD students declined by about 30 percent over this time frame," he said.

In another study this year, SoFi reported that law schools are improving their debt-to-salary ratios and enabling graduates to pay off those loans more easily when they go to work. Cornell, Harvard and Yale graduates reported the highest salaries for their graduates.

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