While there are numerous benefits that a legal education can provide, there is no question that obtaining a law degree, whether through a hybrid online program or a residential program comes at an incredible price. In a survey conducted by U.S. News & World Report of 111 ranked private law schools, the average annual tuition and fees, in the aggregate, in the 2019-2020 academic year was $49,548.1 The prospect of roughly $150,000 in tuition and fees over the course of a traditional three year legal education can seem daunting, especially if you took out a student loan to pay for your bachelor's degree. If your only interest in law school is tied to practicing law at a big law firm for a high salary, keep in mind that, according to the same U.S. News & World Report survey, among 181 ranked law schools that reported the median private sector salary for their 2018 classes, the median compensation was $75,000.
The tuition and salary numbers are, of course, only part of the equation. You should also ask yourself if practicing law will be professionally fulfilling, if there are certain practice areas that you find of particular interest, and if the career you wish to have will be bolstered by a law degree. To help determine whether law school and, specifically, an online JD program, is a worthwhile investment for you, this section will go through: (1) A few of the many benefits that an online legal education can provide. (2) Resources available to help you pay law school tuition and manage law school debt as a recent graduate.
TL;DR / Key Takeaways
- When doing your cost-benefit analysis for law school, think about the benefits that an online JD program can provide.
- There are many different ways to lower the overall expense of a legal education, including with in-state tuition and loan forgiveness programs.
- Different students value their law degrees differently, based on their respective professional and intellectual goals. Before you apply to law school, make sure you have a clear understanding of what you hope your JD degree will allow you to accomplish.
Benefits of Going to Law School Online
The decision to attend law school is certainly not one that any prospective student should take lightly. From the admissions process through the bar exam, law school is a substantial commitment of both time and money. However, a law degree carries with it considerable benefits. Critical thinking, clear communication, and concise writing are all skill sets that a legal education will sharpen. Law students enrolled in online programs will be able to reap these benefits without having to uproot their lives and move to a campus. Andrew Strauss, the Dean of the University of Dayton School of Law, notes in an article he recently wrote that online legal education "makes law school available for students who cannot leave rural areas or who have work and family obligations that make school commutes infeasible. Synchronous classes, after all, can be done anywhere, and asynchronous classes can be done anywhere and anytime."2
Through technology, online JD programs have not only found ways to incorporate successful elements of the traditional classroom experience, but have also added new tools for the benefit of law school students everywhere.
"In residential classes, students in the back of the class often can't clearly see or hear students in the front of the class and vice versa. On video (especially when the default is set to enlarge the speaker's picture) everyone can plainly see and hear everyone else when they speak. The unexpected result is that the students and faculty in our online program often experience a greater level of learning and interpersonal connection than they do in our bricks and mortar program."
- Andrew Strauss, Dean of University of Dayton School of Law, The National Jurist, April 2020
In addition to the technological and pedagogical advantages available to law school students enrolled in hybrid JD programs, there is also considerably more flexibility than ever before. With part-time programs as well as weekend programs, students can attend law school classes on a schedule that works for them. While the average law school debt can be overwhelming to those considering a career change, this flexibility allows people to continue working full-time while pivoting to a career in the legal field.
Best Ways to Pay for Law School
There are a number of different resources available to help a student pay law school tuition and all of the other costs that come with a legal education. Online JD programs allow students to continue to work while completing their degree. Likewise, students can save money on expenses associated with moving to and from campus as well as transportation.
As you start to explore other cost-saving measures, look at the law schools in your state and their respective admissions policies to determine, first and foremost, if any of them are a good fit for you and, second, if you would be eligible to pay in-state tuition. In-state tuition is one way of significantly lowering the cost of law school. The average annual in-state tuition and fees at public law schools was roughly $21,300 less than the average annual tuition and fees at private law schools for the 2019-2020 academic year.3
Scholarships and Grants
During the law school admissions process, you should research whether you are eligible for any scholarships or grants. Many law schools, such as Syracuse University College of Law, award merit-based scholarships during the admission process. In addition, Syracuse University College of Law maintains an outside scholarship database, so that a student can apply for outside scholarship opportunities as well.4
Loan Forgiveness Programs
After you have fully explored financial aid options that are not subject to repayment, like scholarships and grants, you should research loan forgiveness programs. Certain law students may be eligible for loan forgiveness programs, depending on what careers they pursue after graduation. For example, law school graduates who work for a U.S. federal, state, local, or tribal government or not-for-profit organization, may be eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. This particular loan forgiveness program forgives the remaining balance on your Direct Loans after you have made 120 qualifying monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan while working full-time for a qualifying employer.5 While loan forgiveness programs do not reduce tuition, they can help make repayment of your law school loan more manageable.6
To determine if you qualify for a federal loan, you should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). After filling out this financial aid application, you can determine whether a federal loan makes sense for you. The William D. Ford Direct Loan program allows an eligible student to borrow a fixed interest rate student loan and defer repayment on both the interest and the principal for as long as the student is in school.7 In addition, this loan program provides a number of different repayment options. This flexibility means that a student can come up with a loan repayment strategy that works. Other federal loan options available to law students include the Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan and the Federal Direct Graduate PLUS Loan.
After researching the various federal loan options, you may want to explore whether a private loan makes sense for you. Your ability to obtain a private loan is directly tied to your credit score—the better your score, the more likely you are to receive a private loan.8 Keep in mind that the repayment plan for a private loan is unlikely to be as flexible as the repayment plan available to you with a federal loan.
All of these options will help you shoulder the financial burden that comes with a legal education. Whether you want to practice law or use your law degree to further your career in other ways, make sure that you have a sound financial plan in place.
How Value is Measured
How a student measures the value of a law degree is, in many ways, unique to the individual. Many graduates base the value of their degree on their starting salary out of law school and their increased earnings potential. In the AccessLex Institute report entitled “A Framework for Thinking About Law School Affordability”9 Dr. Sandy Baum writes:
“It is reasonable to consider law school “unaffordable” if it does not lead to earnings high enough to pay for it over time while leaving enough income to live at a higher standard of living than would have been possible without the investment.”
However, Dr. Baum goes on to note:
“there are good reasons other than money to go to law school. Some people want to be lawyers because of the social impact they think they can have, because of the intellectual challenge, or because of the social status associated with the profession.”
Before you begin the law school admissions process, ask yourself what goal you hope a JD degree will allow you to accomplish. The answer to this question will ultimately inform how you measure whether the degree is “worth it.”