Following up on DJM's post recalling that nearly 20 years ago some people in legal academia were already sounding the alarm about skyrocketing debt, here are some estimates of average amount borrowed by law graduates who incurred debt in the 1990s: [Note: All figures have been adjusted for inflation and are expressed in constant 2011 dollars]
These numbers are from a 2002 report on law school graduate debt, put together by the ABA. Now either these numbers are wrong, or the numbers law schools are reporting currently to the ABA are wrong. Consider: law schools claim that the average amount borrowed by law graduates in 2011 was around $105,000 ($125,000 for private law school graduates and $77,000 for public law grads).
In other words, if both of these sets of debt numbers were correct, that would mean there was essentially no growth in law graduate debt, in real terms, between 2000 and 2011. And that's just impossible. Between 2000 and 2011 median private law school tuition increased by 40% in real terms, while median public resident tuition more than doubled in constant dollars.
While "scholarships" (cross-subsidized tuition breaks) have increased, they haven't increased nearly as quickly as tuition, and while it's possible that the average SES of law graduates increased over the past decade, there's no way law school tuition could have risen by, conservatively, an average of 50% in real terms over the past decade, while the average student debt load remained essentially unchanged.
This is especially obvious given that the ABA study found a 72% (!) increase in the average amount borrowed in real terms over just the seven years between 1993 and 2000. (Over this period tuition didn't increase nearly as much in real terms as it did between 2000 and 2011. Between 1993 and 2000 private law school tuition went up by 30% and public resident tuition went up by 53% in constant dollars -- i.e., about half the total increase between 2000 and 2011).
So what's going on? Part of the explanation is that when people attempt to calculate law graduate debt figures they get very inconsistent answers. The ABA report itself recognizes this in a footnote: it gives three different estimates for the average amount borrowed by 2000 grads: per its own commissioned study the figure is $77,300 (this is the $100,974 inflation-adjusted figure above). Another independent study put the figure at $84,000; a third came up with an estimate of $62,103, and the schools themselves reported an average amount borrowed of around $58,000 ($70,000 for private law schools and $44,000 for public law schools. Keep in mind that none of these figures account for interest accrued during law school, which at present requires adding about 15% to 20% to average amount borrowed figures to calculate total actual debt at initial repayment).
Interestingly, since the 2002 ABA report there seems to have been no independent study of how much debt law school graduates incur. The only data we have is what the law schools have been reporting to the ABA. And we know there have been serious problems with that reporting process.
This is yet another issue regarding legal education which requires independent auditing by a disinterested party, such as for example the Department of Education. Given that it's funding this whole enterprise, the federal government should get the real numbers before it hands out another $50 billion in law school loans (this is a conservative estimate of how much federal loan money law students are likely to borrow over the course of the next decade).
October LSATs administered
2009 (all-time high): 60,746
2012: 37,780 (Lowest total since 1999)
As a commenter notes, the ratio of applicants to LSAT administrations has declined quite a bit in the last few years, ever since LSAC started allowing law schools to report only a matriculant's highest LSAT score. The result of this has been a big increase in re-taking, as reflected by the following numbers:
Ratio of applicants to administrations: 68.2%
Based on the first two of four administrations in this cycle, the likely total number of LSAT administrations in the cycle will be around 114,000. If the ratio of applicants to administrations is 52%, that means we can expect around 59,200 applicants in the cycle (This is a lower number than the total number of people admitted to ABA schools two years ago).