Misreporting the Costs of Going to (Some) Law Schools

In an effort to educate potential law students about the real costs of attending law school, Law School Transparency has launched a “Data Clearinghouse”, a database of “consumer information” on law schools, including much information law schools have been reluctant to disclose.

The latest addition to the database are projections of the full cost of attending each law school in the nation. Based on Law School Transparency’s calculations, these costs can vary widely. As the NLJ reported:

As part of the comprehensive database of law school employment statistics it launched this week, the organization has projected the total cost of law school loans for students who will graduate in 2015 and 2016 — that is, the ones who will start law school this year or next. The former will owe an average of $195,265 and the latter will owe an average $200,595.

“My jaw dropped when I ran the numbers,” McEntee said.

He added a few caveats. The calculations are based on the assumption that students will borrow the full tuition amount in the form of federal loans, even though many students receive some scholarship money. They also assume that students at public law schools pay out-of state-tuition levels, which generally are higher than in-state rates. . . .

The City University of New York School of Law features the lowest projected debt for the class of 2015, at $96,242. The University of California, Berkeley School of Law had the highest, at $273,667, although that figure assumes graduates paid out-of-state tuition rates; most students from outside California qualify for in-state tuition after one year.

New York University School of Law had the next-highest projected debt at $266,462.

Some of the numbers are quite revealing — and some of the numbers are quite wrong. In a quick review of the numbers for a handful of schools, I’ve found substantial under-reporting of cost-of-living estimates. Lets start with the alleged cheapest school on the list, CUNY. According to the database, the estimated annual cost of living is only $7,425. Really? In New York City? (Yes, it’s Queens. But still.) But it turns out that $7,425 is not the estimated cost of living for CUNY. According to the law school’s website, the actual figure is more than double the reported amount, $17,943. That’s quite a difference.

CUNY is not the only school for which the numbers in the Law School Transparency database are inaccurate. The University of Louisville is another low-cost school according to the database, with a reported cost of living of only $10,490. Again, however, a quick check of the law school website reveals a much higher figure. Louisville estimates the cost of living for its prospective students at over $18,000 per year. Florida State’s reported number is $13,000, but their cost-of-living calculator estimates costs of over $17,000. Albany Law School’s reported number is $12,300, but their website reveals costs of $18,000. And so on.

I contacted the folks at Law School Transparency to ask about the problems with their data. They said they relied upon data provided to U.S. News, and pledged to do more research so that they could provide more accurate numbers (numbers which should be up shortly, perhaps later tonight). The faulty data, they argue, is further evidence of how law schools misreport to U.S. News and highlights the need for more standardized and complete reporting. Fair enough. Yet the whole point of their site, as I understand it, is to give law school “consumers” access to more complete and accurate information than they are getting from U.S. News and law schools themselves. Further, some of these numbers — such as the CUNY cost-of-living figure — should have been dead giveaways that something was wrong.

My own curiosity was piqued not just by the CUNY number, but also by the variation in living cost estimates for schools in particular cities. In Chicago, for instance, the estimated cost of living varies dramatically, from Loyola ($15K) to UChicago ($17K) to DePaul ($28K). This seems like a massive difference across a single city, and is the sort of thing that jumps out after even the most casual review of the numbers. It’s hard to see such figures and not suspect that something is wrong.

Closer to home, I noticed that the estimated cost of living for Cleveland-Marshall was approximately $4,000 less than that for my own institution, Case Western Reserve University, even though the two schools are only a few miles apart. This didn’t seem right — if anything, it’s cheaper to live near Case than it is to live downtown. And here again the reported data was wrong. The cost reported in the database was $16,000, and yet Cleveland-Marshall’s own website lists expenses of over $19,000. Case’s data, I’m proud to report, was accurately reported.

As noted above, the folks at Law School Transparency were quite responsive when I pointed out these errors. They pledged to double-check the numbers and post corrections as soon as possible. This is all to the good, but this is also work that should have been done before trumpeting the data to prospective law students and the press. Some numbers, such as CUNY’s $7,425 cost of living estimate or the $10K spread in living costs across schools in Chicago, should have been red flags that something was amiss. At the very least, it should have been obvious that the cost-of-living numbers they decided to post were not apples-to-apples comparisons. Law schools deserve criticism for their relative lack of transparency, as does U.S. News insofar as it publishes inaccurate information or presents a misleading picture of specific schools. But the self-appointed watchmen of law school transparency should be held to a high standard as well, and need to be more careful about presenting false or misleading information themselves, whatever the source.

UPDATE: The cost of living data has been updated on Law School Transparency’s website. Quite a few schools have moved around in these rankings quite a bit. LST’s Kyle McEntee also comments below.

SECOND UPDATE: NLJ reports on this story.