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DEBT SCIENCE: Kate Trokey-Harris borrowed $100,000 to pay for tuition and living expenses for law school. She says it was worth the investment.
SBJ photo by Wes Hamilton
DEBT SCIENCE: Kate Trokey-Harris borrowed $100,000 to pay for tuition and living expenses for law school. She says it was worth the investment.

Barrier to Entry: Large law school loans cause students to evaluate the investment

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Kate Trokey-Harris describes law school as an adventure.

With three kids and a husband who commuted three hours for work to support the family, Trokey-Harris said it would have been nearly impossible to pay for tuition and living expenses without student loans.

“We borrowed about $100,000 by the time it was over,” she said. “We pretty much borrowed as much as we could based on the federal scales.”

Trokey-Harris relocated to Rogers, Arkansas, in 2013 to attend the University of Arkansas School of Law after graduating from Missouri State University.

“I know right off the bat, starting salary for an attorney isn’t fantastic,” she said. “But I felt like in the long run, it was worth the investment.”

The cost of law school among more than 200 public and private schools nationwide increased by 12.5 percent in the last five years, according to the American Bar Association. In 2017, the average in-state tuition was nearly $38,000 annually.

The ABA Journal reported that law school grads average $134,497 of debt if they attended private schools or $96,054 for public schools. Between 2005 and 2013, student debt increased by 25 percent for private schools, and 34 percent for public schools.

Return on investment
Crista Hogan, executive director of the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association, considers law school debt crippling.

“I really think it’s devastating to the profession,” she said. “The biggest problem is that there can be a negative correlation between the amount of debt and the ability to repay it. Just because someone is willing to lend me a half a million dollars, doesn’t mean I can repay it.”

Kevin Pybas, associate professor and pre-law adviser at MSU, agrees.

“I think education is always a wise investment,” he said. “But you have to force (students) to think about the likely return on the investment.”

The National Association for Law Placement reports $135,000 is the average salary for law graduates entering the private sector, with $43,000 for public-sector jobs.

Pybas cautions students to consider how well they are doing in school and their score on the LSAT aptitude test when determining whether law school is worth the cost.

Debating reform
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina, in December 2017 introduced the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform Act. The bill would reform student loan borrowing and repayment practices.

Under current law, graduate students can borrow $20,500 per year in unsubsidized loans and can borrow additional funds, up to the cost of attendance, through the Graduate Plus program.

The PROSPER Act would eliminate the Graduate Plus program and raise the cap on unsubsidized loans to $28,500 annually. For students graduating law school and other graduate school institutions, the Congressional Budget Office anticipates the proposed resolution would reduce the amount of federal loans those graduates take out by $5 billion per year.

The bill also would eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

Currently, after borrowers work in the public sector and make income-based loan payments for 10 years, any remaining balance is forgiven.

Hogan said she traveled to Washington, D.C., with a group of Missouri lawyers for ABA Day on April 11 to lobby for keeping the PSLF program.

“The very best program that has been somewhat imperiled is loan forgiveness for people who do public-sector work,” she said.

At MSU, Pybas said most students he’s advised depend on student loans to pay for tuition and living expenses. Although restricting the amount of loans might help reduce the burden of debt, he said it would disenfranchise many of his students who would have no hope of going to law school without access to student loans.

Even students with full-ride scholarships, Pybas said, take out loans for living expenses because either they cannot have a job according to school rules or simply don’t have time for one.

“The first year of law school is a 70-hour-a-week job,” he said.

Attracting students
Nationally, the number of students graduating from law school has declined over the past five years. In 2012, 46,364 students graduated from law schools nationwide compared with 34,922 in 2017. Now, those numbers are now going back up, professors say.

“There have been more students applying to law school this year than at least 2008,” Pybas said.

Robert Bartels, associate professor and pre law adviser at Evangel University, also has observed that trend.

“They had too many people going to law school and they stopped recruiting as much. Now they’re trying to encourage more people to attend,” Bartels said.

After the Great Recession, Pybas said some schools lowered admission standards to keep graduation rates level.

“A lot of law schools are taking applications that they wouldn’t have taken before,” he said, noting the trend creates its own challenges. “(The students) don’t excel in law school, so they don’t find a job.”

Some law schools have taken a different approach to getting more students in the door.

The University of Tulsa College of Law in 2017 reduced its annual tuition to $24,600 from $39,000. Additional scholarships are still available.

“The reason we did that was just to have a quality private legal education accessible to a broader range of applicants,” said April Fox, the college’s associate dean and director of admissions. “Reducing the tuition just makes the affordability and the accessibility for more people who have differing professional goals and different socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Fox acknowledged the national decrease in law school graduates after the recession. She said TU College of Law felt that impact as well.

“When you have those concerns with carrying debt from undergraduate school and then taking on more debt, it’s intimidating,” she said.

Fox said applications to TU College of Law are up from last year, with 265 students currently enrolled. Tulsa’s first-year enrollees are up nearly 7 percent in 2017 compared with 2015, according to the ABA.

The fix
Rachel Marsh will begin classes at the University of Missouri School of Law in August – on a full-ride merit scholarship.

“I wanted to come out the other side and not be so burdened in debt that I’d have to work at a job I didn’t want, so desperate to pay off my debts,” she said.

She’s always wanted to be a lawyer but said if she hadn’t received a substantial scholarship, she would have rethought her career.

“That was basically my first consideration, it needed to be affordable,” said Marsh, who’s graduating from MSU next month.

She doesn’t think some of her peers understand the ramifications of taking on debt.

“They’ll come in with undergraduate debt, and then another $80,000 in law school,” she said. “That’s crippling.”

Bartels encouraged students to seek scholarships to help pay for college, and he suggested law schools consider offering a four-year program that would allow students time to work while taking classes.

Still many admit, there’s no easy answers.

“What I really want is for students to be able to graduate and be able to have good employment opportunities and the ability to service their debt and provide for their families,” SMBA’s Hogan said. “I’m open to any good suggestion.”

Trokey-Harris said her parents unexpectedly paid for half of the $100,000 in loans she took out during law school. She’s paying the remainder through a graduated repayment plan.  After earning her degree in 2015, she took a job the following year working with her father at Cantwell, Smith & Trokey LLP in Branson.

“It’s really hard when you’re in it,” she said of law school. “So far, I feel like it’s been worth it.”

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