The ABA accreditation standards require that each law school publish cost of attendance (COA) data. However, there is no standard method of creating, organizing, or publishing the figures. Moreover, a school's estimated cost of attendance is not an estimate made specific to you. Therefore, it is important to understand the costs associated with attending law school, from the expenses you pay the school to the expenses you expect to incur pursuing your professional credentials.
COA data on school websites typically includes tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation, and some personal expenses. However, it is important to be aware that other potential costs, like optional fees, health insurance, transportation, loan origination fees, and purchasing a laptop are not uniformly included in the estimate, and that some expenses, like laptop fees or graduation fees, are not renewable each year.
In addition, tuition may vary by year, and costs of attendance can be adjusted up or down over time. For example, although some schools guarantee tuition for all years, others do not, and at some schools, first-year students pay a different amount than other students. Beware that a scholarship you receive may be for just one year or conditioned upon you obtaining a specified class rank or GPA. (For more information on conditional scholarships, see this LST project.).
In general, the total COA advertised by the school, less other sources of financial aid like tuition discounts, endowed scholarships, or grants, is usually the maximum amount of money you can borrow from the federal government. However, that COA amount usually will not cover all of your living expenses, as the estimate takes into account only the eight or nine months of the academic year. It is important to pay attention to what factors the school is using when it calculates the COA and to consider which of them apply to you in order to understand what you can actually expect to spend. As just one example, consider whether the COA assumes you (a) live alone or with a roommate and (b) live on campus, live off campus, or live at home.
In addition to direct monetary costs, it is important to consider the opportunity cost of attending law school. By attending law school, you give up years of potential employment income and/or career advancement in another field. This lost income and the time commitment law school requires are important additional factors to consider when deciding whether to pursue a law degree.
The amount of student loan interest you are responsible for depends on what types of loans you take out and when. Three of the most important types of loans available for graduate study are Stafford loans, GradPLUS loans, and private loans. Under current law, interest rates for Stafford loans and GradPLUS loans will change annually based on the Ten-Year Treasury Bill. Private loans can be obtained at either fixed or flexible interest rates that vary according to your personal credit score. For more information on student loans, see the Student Loan guide.
Again, it is important to remember when considering COA from individual school websites that these estimates do not include everything and are not necessarily an accurate depiction of the costs you will personally incur. As already mentioned, summer living expenses are generally not included in the figure. Moreover, the COA given on school websites will not include the cost of living for the summer before you go to law school, after you finish your undergraduate studies or previous employment; nor will it take into account post-graduate expenses while studying for and taking the bar exam. Finally, remember to take into account bar preparation and bar exam expenses; although some employers cover these costs, not all do.
By Rachel Purcell