Legal Education

Is Department of Education data on student loan defaults an accurate reflection of law schools?

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Among the thousands of schools listed in the U.S. Department of Education’s student loan default data released last week, 23 were law schools, all of which have individual identification numbers for participating in Title IV aid.

The institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit group that works to increase the public’s understanding of student debt, designed a sortable spreadsheet with the data. Shannon Serrato, the group’s communication manager, told the ABA Journal that if a college submits one program participation agreement for all of its schools, those schools would be under one Office of Postsecondary Education Identification (OPE ID) number, which is what the Department of Education uses to track student loan default data.

There could be many more law schools with student loan default rates that aren’t included in the data, says Donald Lively, president of Arizona Summit School of Law.

“Law schools that are part of a university have their default rates aggregated with the university, so it is difficult to determine their default rates. Given that they constitute the vast majority of law schools, however, it could well be that some of them have the highest loan default rates,” Lively wrote in an email to the ABA Journal. His law school had a student loan default rate of 1 percent, according to the data.

The Department of Education Data is for the fiscal year 2014, which has a tracking period of Oct. 1, 2013 through Sept. 30, 2016. according to an agency press release. Between fiscal years 2013 and 2014, the overall student loan default rate increased from 11.3 percent to 11.5 percent, the release states.

Among the law schools with their own OPE ID numbers and a student loan default rate of more than 2 percent:

• Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, Massachusetts—4.8 percent (12 in default among 250 who entered repayment plans.)

• Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego—3.8 percent (20 in default among 530 who entered repayment plans.)

• Appalachian School of Law, Grundy, Virginia—2.9 percent (three in default among 102 who entered repayment plans.)

• Mitchell Hamline School of Law, St. Paul, Minnesota—2.6 percent (eight in default among 306 who entered repayment plans.)

• San Joaquin College of Law, Clovis, California—2.6 percent (two in default among 76 who entered repayment plans.)

• Thomas M. Cooley School of Law, Lansing, Michigan—2.5 percent (32 in default among 1,255 who entered repayment plans.)

• Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, Atlanta—2.3 percent (seven in default among 302 who entered repayment plans.)

There may be no way to answer the question of whether any law schools that share OPE ID numbers with affiliated universities have comparable default rates, says Jerome Organ, law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. Some of Organ’s work focuses on transparency in financial aspects of the decision to attend law school.

Lawrence Ponoroff, the dean of Michigan State University College of Law, also says that he knows no public information regarding student loan default rates at law schools that share OPE ID numbers with affiliated universities. He believes more information would be helpful.

“I think more transparency is always good,” Ponoroff says. “Student education debt is a major issue, and I agree that concern ought not be limited to just … freestanding law schools.”

His law school—formerly known as Detroit College of Law, an independent institution that entered into an affiliation with MSU in 1995—has a student loan default rate of 1.6 percent, according to the Department of Education data.

“We’re actually trending downward, so that’s a point at which I take some pride,” says Ponoroff, noting that the school’s student loan default rate was 2.1 percent for fiscal year 2013.

The information released by the Department of Education focuses solely on school’s cohort default data,says Aaron Taylor, executive director of the AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence. That doesn’t say much about law school student debt, according to him.

A better picture, Taylor adds, would include law schools’ employment percentages, along with salary and law school debt averages of recent graduates. With the exception of employment percentages, which ABA-accredited law schools are required to report, few if any law schools make that information public, says Taylor, who is also an associate professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. Also, he knows of no public information with law school debt deferment data.

“The actual reality when we talk about how law graduates are managing student loan debt is probably understated by the cohort default rate,” he says.

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