Students arriving on college campuses across the country have all, one way or another, found a way to pay the staggering price tags associated with their degrees. Law school students have not been immune to such sticker shock. This issue explores the costs—social, physical, mental, emotional—of what such student debt means for the legal profession and broadly, for society. In the lead article, “The Black-White Student Debt Gap Among Law School Graduates,” Center on the Legal Profession research fellow Meghan Dawe illustrates that the impact of student debt is unevenly distributed along racial lines, with Black students borrowing more and owing more later in life compared to their White peers. This has important implications for the legal profession. As Dawe writes:
Unequal access to legal education in particular has important implications for democracy as lawyers play a central role in mediating the relationship between the state and its citizens. Barriers to legal education and the legal profession also have serious implications for racial equality and social justice. Many lawyers in the United States take on prominent roles in the economic and political spheres, and student debt limits opportunities for Black individuals to participate in positions of power and privilege in American society. Moreover, lawyers are an integral part of the administration of justice and ultimately regulate the cost and accessibility of their services, with the accessibility of legal services directly influencing the degree to which the goal of equality before the law can be accomplished.
Dawe bases her findings on data from After the JD, a longitudinal study tracking the first 20 years of lawyers’ careers, which underscores the need to have a long-term perspective on the role of student debt. To that end, the issue also takes a deep dive into the relationship between debt and health, both physical and mental—and how that relationship evolves over time. Jason Houle, professor of sociology at Dartmouth, finds that debt impacts individual lives differently at different points in time: debt, he notes, is a “resource that helps you until it hurts you.” It’s a tool to open doors, but can become a “chronic stressor,” he says.
While (law) school financing is a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions, the issue nonetheless explores different private sector solutions deployed in the here and now. We present two case studies, thinking about how employer-supported tuition assistance and income share agreements only open to select students might scale for larger parts of the legal profession.
This issue closes with insights from two leading luminaries on student debt. In the first, we interview Dalié Jiménez, professor of law at UC Irvine, who is an expert on debt collection and bankruptcy issues. Professor Jiménez describes how she got involved in these issues and how the legal profession can help. Like Houle, she notes that student debt is a gamble, and can be “a way to buy a ticket to a better life.” But, she says, it plays out differently for different groups of people. She says:
When it comes to debt, in many cases, there are degrees of choice about incurring it. We live in a society in which people—particularly minoritized people, but really anyone who didn’t luck into a family that has intergenerational wealth—have to pay for school to try to improve their financial situation. For a long time the message was you just have to do it and over time you will succeed. And if you don’t succeed, it’s your fault because you did something wrong—for instance, you didn’t study hard enough. But that’s not necessarily the case. It’s important to remember that taking on student debt is not a real choice for many people.
We conclude with an interview with Elizabeth Warren, the senior senator from Massachusetts and a leading advocate of student debt reform, who emphasizes that freeing students from the burdens of debt means betting on the future of the country. She asks and answers: “What is our most precious resource? It’s our people. And what’s one of the best ways to invest in our people? Invest in their education.” Senator Warren stresses that we are a pivotal moment in history, and young people can push for a better world—increased access to education—but its up to the rest of us to respond.