The results of the American Bar Association’s 2020 Law School Student Debt Survey Report turned up sobering findings.
Of the more than 1,000 lawyers (one to 10 years out of law school) who responded to the survey, 95.2% said they took out loans, and the median loan balance was $160,000. Unsurprisingly, the debt load meant that many of them delayed important life decisions, including getting married, having children and buying a house.
Kyle Fry, assistant general counsel of the Kent Corporation, said the survey also revealed that student loans take a disproportionate toll on lawyers of color and that they are negatively affecting mental health.
Fry was a panelist at the program, “Understanding and Navigating the Student Debt Crisis,” sponsored by the Young Lawyers Division and held virtually on Feb. 18 at the ABA Midyear Meeting.
“Student debt is a social justice issue,” said Abre’ Conner, directing attorney for the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, noting the ramifications of the racial wealth gap. Black Americans are twice as likely to be unable to pay student debt as white borrowers, she said.
Among several initiatives to address the problem, YLD is working to pursue corrections to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, advocate for financial counseling for those considering law school and to extend student loan payment terms.
Conner pointed to the resources available at ambar.org/debt.
Although Congress is now occupied with passing a COVID relief bill, Nancy Conneely, director of policy at AccessLex, said that lawmakers will soon turn to such issues as canceling student debt, increasing Pell grants and making community colleges free.
The Higher Education Act, which governs student aid, is overdue for reauthorization, she said, so now is the time to lobby your representative and senator on what should be in the revised act “before they start putting pen to paper.”
To get involved, Conneely encouraged reaching out to lawmakers:
- Call or email your representative and senator. “They want to hear from constituents, and they want to be responsive to constituents,” she said.
- Educate them about the impact of issues you care about by bringing them data and stories in your district. “The data shows that there is a problem -- but [your] stories bring that data to life.”
- Propose a solution, which will help push them in the direction that you want and tell them what your community needs.
What to ask for when you reach out to your representative? Panelists provided some ideas:
- Increase loan affordability
- lower interest rates on student loans
- eliminate origination fees
- Support diversity and access
- allow students eligible for Pell grants to use any remaining eligibility for graduate school
- reinstate subsidized loans for graduate students
- fully fund HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions
- Strengthen repayment
- Streamline the income repayment plans to one plan from five plans
- Improve the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Plan
- Push the Department of Education to release better data so consumers can make more informed decisions about if and where to go to school
- Increase the frequency of loan counseling
- Make it easier for student loan borrowers to have their student loans discharged
AccessLex’s webpage #MakeTheCase has further information and resources for advocacy.
Also on the panel were Chad Christensen, project manager of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement and Aaron Sohaski, director of contracting and compliance at the Henry Ford Health System.