These estimates appear to be completely unregulated by Uncle Sam or anyone else, which creates an opportunity for law schools to manipulate the numbers. And in fact the cost of living estimates law schools make vary enormously for reasons that don't seem to have anything to do with the actual cost of living students will incur.
Compare, for example, Florida A&M's cost of living estimate ($25,000) with Florida State's ($16,900). These schools are in the same city, yet a FAMU student will be able to borrow $24,300 more in living expenses over the course of law school than an FSU student. Interestingly, the good folks at FAMU estimate that it costs more to live in the Florida panhandle than NYU estimates it costs to live in Greenwich Village (NYU's estimated cost of living is $24,368). According to this cost of living comparator, housing is 173% more expensive in New York City than in Tallahassee, and the overall cost of living is 63% higher. Update: FAMU's law school is actually in Orlando. This changes the numbers above only slightly however, as the same calculator estimates Orlando to be just 7% more expensive than Tallahassee.
A cursory glance at LST's curated numbers reveals all sorts of similar anomalies, such as Campbell ($26,700) estimating a cost of living 50.8% higher than Duke ($17,708). Why, for example, can you borrow nearly $30,000 per year in living expenses to attend Chapman, located in scenic Orange, CA, but only $20,000 if you're admitted to UCLA and must inhabit the slums of Westwood? This adds up to increasing a Chapman student's limit on the federal loan credit card by nearly $30,000 relative to a UCLA student over the course of their respective law school adventures.
Chapman's estimated living expenses for a single graduate student are particularly striking given the school's employment and salary numbers. 16.7% of Chapman's 2010 class reported a salary of at least $60,000, and 75% of the class failed to report a salary of at least $41,600. What sort of after tax income does someone have to pay what the school estimates it costs merely to live where Chapman is located? Keep in mind that all the numbers quoted in this post are only for nine months of living expenses, since that is what schools are required to calculate when
So, subtracting the cost of books and supplies, Chapman estimates it costs approximately $3,100 per month for a single person to live in the area where Chapman's graduates are expected to get jobs. In order to have such an income, a person must have a pre-tax income of at least $50,000. In other words, according to the school, the vast majority of Chapman graduates aren't earning incomes sufficient to cover the cost of attending Chapman for "free."
Glancing at these various cost of living estimates, the general pattern appears to be this: Bottom feeder schools tend to make extremely high cost of living estimates, apparently since they at least unconsciously understand that what they're actually selling is a three-year taxpayer-funded postponement of un- and under-employment. Since these loans aren't going to be repaid anyway, why not allow people to borrow as much as possible without drawing the attention of the authorities to this sordid little grift?
By contrast, some relatively high-ranked schools go if anything in the opposite direction, making quite modest cost of living estimates, no doubt in an effort to make the school's overall cost of attendance seem less daunting given these schools' employment and salary numbers. For instance, Hastings, located in the middle of the most expensive city in the nation, (and sporting terrifying placement figures) has a lower estimated cost of living than dozens of flyover country establishments. (See also Boston University etc.).
Anyway, all this merely highlights another aspect of the absurdity of allowing law schools to make up whatever numbers they want when they determine the cost of legal education, before passing that cost on to their students and eventually the American public.