Report confirms things are as bad as you thought

Brett Hughes (2L)

The cost of legal education is affecting students’ career goals. First generation students are hugely underrepresented in law school, particularly at U of T Law. Students do not believe that their law school administrations, the Law Society of Upper Canada, and the Government of Ontario are “genuinely concerned” about the escalating financial barriers to legal education. These are among the findings of a major report released last week by the Law Students’ Society of Ontario (LSSO).

The report is based on the results of the 2014 Survey of Ontario Law Students’ Tuition, Debt, and Financial Aid Experiences. Conducted in February 2014, the survey received 941 responses from students at law schools across Ontario, including: Osgoode, Toronto, Windsor, Ottawa, and Western. It received 233 responses from U of T Law.

The survey was “was conceived as a means to start a conversation about the real impact the economics of legal education are having on pocketbooks, classroom diversity, mental health, career outcomes, and the public interest itself.” The results provide plenty of conversation starters.

Diversity

The survey data indicates that Ontario’s law schools have greater visible minority representation (27.6%) than the Canadian population at large (19.1%), though it roughly matches Ontario, where 25.9% belong to a visible minority. The LSSO report focuses on Canadian population data, rather than Ontario. Chinese law students are especially well represented (9.5%) compared to the Canadian population (4.0%). South Asian students also do well at 6.0% (versus 4.8%).

Only 2.4% of respondents identified as Aboriginal, compared to 4.2% in Canada. Students from rural areas are also poorly represented (10.4%) compared to Canada as a whole (18.9%). At U of T Law, only 7.2% of respondents were from rural areas.

On a more positive note, the gender split was roughly 50/50, suggesting gender parity at Ontario law schools. (Very few selected Trans, Other, or Prefer not to disclose.) Additionally, the results indicate that there are more LGBTQ students at Ontario law schools (8.9%) than in the Canadian population (5%, according to one source).

As one of the written comments points out, however, “It is not sufficient to speak about diversity without including class.” In that respect, Ontario law schools – and U of T Law in particular – are woefully unrepresentative.

An astonishing 88% of students at U of T Law have at least one parent with a post-secondary credential. This compares with 81.8% for all respondents. The report notes that only 53.6% of Canadians over the age of 15 have a post-secondary credential. This age range may not be the most relevant comparator, but further review of Statistics Canada data shows that only 69.2% of those aged 25-44 and 59.2% of those aged 45-64 have post-secondary credentials.

Furthermore, 61% of respondents entered law school with no pre-existing debt, even though other sources suggest that as few as 40% of students complete undergraduate degrees debt-free. In a similar vein, 30% of respondents expected to graduate law school with no debt owing to governments or banks.

Financial Barriers

While many responses related to financing law school will come as no surprise to students, the data may be of interest to the U of T Law administration, which has insisted that the cost of law school does not affect career choice, and there is no connection between debt and mental health.

Over 55% of respondents from U of T Law agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “The cost of attending law school has impacted my career objectives or rationale for pursuing a law degree” More than 40% of respondents from U of T Law agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Financial stress related to law school costs has negatively impacted my mental health.”

A clear majority of respondents (70.1%) had sought to secure a line of credit to fund their legal education. Nearly one quarter of them “encounter[ed] problems” in trying to do so, and 5.7% were unsuccessful. Of those who required a co-signer, 13.5% indicated that their parents were not eligible co-signers.

These numbers are concerning in light of the emphasis placed by law schools – especially U of T Law – on the willingness of private financial institutions to lend students money as a prerequisite for accessing financial aid. It seems plausible that students facing difficulty accessing credit may simply avoid schools like U of T Law altogether. This would be consistent with the fact that 61% of respondents started law school debt free.

When first generation students are able to secure credit, they end up with much more debt than their peers. By third-year, first generation students have an average of $90,354 in debt, compared to $63,970 for students whose parents both have post-secondary credentials.

Other Results

Unsurprisingly, most respondents completed an Arts or Humanities or Social Sciences undergraduate degree (69.7%).  Just over 12% completed a Business undergraduate degree, followed by Science or Mathematics (10.8%), Engineering or Computer Science (3.2%), and Other (3.9%).

Osgoode students are most likely to have a parent with a PhD, while students at U of T Law are far more likely than others to have a parent with a professional degree (i.e. JD, MD, MBA).

Just over 20% of U of T Law respondents indicated that they would have chosen a different law school, knowing what they know now. Toronto and Osgoode students were the most likely to express this sentiment.

Read the report here.