The Worst Law Schools for Student Debt

NYU's Vanderbilt Hall

NYU’s Vanderbilt Hall


As noted earlier, Columbia Law students maintain the highest debts in the model where they don’t receive assistance for tuition, fees, and living expenses. However, only $3 separates Columbia from New York University, where students owe $317,426. When you consider that 64% of NYU grads paid full tuition (compared to 56.9% at Columbia), NYU truly tops the list of most-indebted students.

And high debt isn’t just relegated to the Ivies. Stanford Law graduates also average $317,066 in debt when they pay their full share, just $360 less than Columbia over three years. And the University of Southern California isn’t far behind at $310,438 (though only 22.9% of the class of 2014 paid full tuition).

The big trend, not surprisingly, is that the highest average debts are concentrated among private schools. In fact, the top twenty programs for debt were all private, with the University of California-Hastings ($286,907) being the first public entry. The top programs also charged a premium. Among the top eight programs for debt, six were ranked seventh or better in U.S. News’ latest law school rankings (with only Yale Law missing).

However, several schools, ranked outside the first and second tier, have also capitalized on students’ willingness to pay high tuition rates. The Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, ranked 75th by U.S. News, has a higher average debt ($299,932) than Cornell, Northwestern and Duke. And graduates from Southwestern Law School, which has no published rank in  U.S. News, carry a debt of $293,496, more than top 10 programs such as the University of California-Berkeley ($286,097) and the University of Virginia ($285,415). Arizona Summit ($286,591), Chapman University ($283,127), and John Marshall Law School – Chicago ($274,798) also fall into the category of nominal schools that charge phenomenal tuitions.

Looking for a good value? Try Brigham Young University, ranked 34th, where LDS members leave with $115,867 in debt (and non-members only bear $160,081). At 42nd-ranked Arizona, graduates amass roughly $164,000 in debt. And the University of Florida (Levin), another top-50 program, out-of-state debt runs $201,597 (and it’s $52,000 less for in-state residents).


Now, let’s look at students who receive assistance while financing their schooling through debt. Alas, some schools are more generous than others. Take the University of Puerto Rico, where 100% of law grads pay full tuition. At Georgia State University, where 2013 graduates produced a higher first-time bar passage rate than Yale, 76.2% of students pay full tuition. And the top programs can be nearly as stingy. Look no further than the full-debt percentages at NYU (64%), Georgetown (63.1%), Virginia (62.2%), Columbia (56.9%), Northwestern (53.6%), and Penn (53.6%).

ndiana University Maurer School of Law

Indiana University Maurer School of Law

For students looking for assistance, the best bet is to enroll in a public Midwest law school. At the University of Illinois, just 2.8% pay full tuition, with Indiana (Maurer) and Ohio State (Moritz) coming in at 9.1% and 11% respectively.

Despite attending a top-20 private program, just 10.6% of Vanderbilt grads had to cover full tuition. Other high performers in this area include Texas A&M (9.6%), California-Irvine (10.6%), North Carolina (12.5%), and Boston University (14.9%). Overall, Liberty University led the field, with just 1% of students paying their full ride.


You won’t catch a huge break if you attend Columbia Law with merit-based scholarships or family assistance. In this category, Law School Transparency calculated that student debt would be $263,694, about $54,200 less than going it alone (and $600 less per month in loan payments). Here, just 21.6% of students receive the median discount (a middle of the pack $15,000).

Several surprises follow Columbia. Technically, SUNY Buffalo, where resident tuition has increased 8.1% over the past five years, ranks second at $253,482. However, only 11% of SUNY Buffalo students come from out-of-the state. As a result, the real debt paid is likely closer to $174,410. Still, thanks s to a paltry $5,000 per year median discount, in-state residents still only save roughly $17,900 over three years when median discounts are applied. Fordham ($252,674), the University of Chicago ($248,466), and Arizona Summit ($247,186) round out the top five.

Ohio Northern graduates face the least debt when median discounts are applied. These graduates pay just $82,847 for debt, with a manageable monthly payment of $931. Here, nearly 40% of students receive a median discount of $22,000. Debt for Michigan State grads also comes in under $100,000 ($98,375). Other top-50 debt bargains include: Arizona (roughly $118,000), Iowa ($120,689 for non-residents and $60,423 for residents), and Alabama ($158,244 for non-residents and $101,168 for residents), Washington & Lee ($163,043), and Wake Forest ($163,085).

Vanderbilt Law School

Vanderbilt Law School

As before, Liberty University (49.5%) and the University of Illinois (48.6%) have the highest levels of students receiving a median discount. Other law schools that rank highly in this category include: New Hampshire (47.6%), Indiana Maurer (45.5%), Texas A&M (45.2%), California-Irvine (44.7%), and Vanderbilt (44.7%). Well-regarded programs that rank low in this metric include: Georgia State (11.9%), the University of Miami (17.2%), New York University (18%), Georgetown (18.5%), and Virginia (18.9%).

Brooklyn Law offers the highest median discounts at $30,600, followed by Cardozo-Yeshiva ($30,600), St. John’s ($30,000), Michigan State ($27,033), and Case Western Reserve ($27,000). Among name schools, the lowest median was provided by Texas A&M ($1,288), with North Carolina ($2,628), Houston ($5,000), Georgia ($5,000), and Brigham Young ($5,000) not far behind.

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To see the top programs for when both full tuition and financial aid are factored in, go to the next pages.