Wisdom from the financial aid panel

Summary of panelists’ presentations from the recent workshop on law school financial aid issues:

What kinds of financial aid are available?

Need-based aid (mainly Stafford loans, up to a Congressionally specified sum, currently around $20K), private loans, and merit-based aid.

What forms do I fill out to apply for need-based aid?  :

Basic form is the FAFSA.  Some law schools have their own specific forms too, so be sure to check.  Deadlines as early as January/February—there is an advantage to completing all financial aid forms early.

Be sure to answer questions about parental contributions candidly.  Financial aid officers can spot discrepancies in your financial records.  It is important to explain all details of your parents’ financial obligations, e.g., tuition payments for other siblings, debt, house ownership.

What do I need to bear in mind while the financial aid process is underway?

Plan, schedule, keep up with deadlines and follow up.  There are many different deadlines in this process, and it is important to take note of them in advance.  Make sure that your application is complete by making follow-up phone calls and e-mails.  Remember that documents can be lost in the mail.

What is merit-based aid determined by?Mainly LSAT score and GPA, plus other factors that make a candidate more desirable or show his/her merit.  This is why it is important to include full biographical details in your application.

How do I get private loans?

Go to a bank or to one of the many websites offering private loans.  Compare interest rates and other terms.

All this debt is pretty scary.  How do I manage it?

First, plan your debt.  Private loans are commercial transactions, and the terms are influenced by your credit rating.  If you already have a lot of debt after college, it may be to your advantage to work for a few years to reduce your debts and improve your credit ratings.  Also, post-collegiate experience is considered a plus by most admissions officers.

Second, be prudent.  Live modestly while you are in law school, and avoid unnecessary debt.

Third, plan your post-graduation career with your debts in mind.  See below.

Supposing I get multiple merit-based financial aid offers from different schools, can I negotiate with them for an even better deal?

Within reason.  Be prepared to explain why you are asking for more aid.  Be courteous and professional.  Also, negotiations are possible only with respect to merit-based aid, not need-based.

What kind of resources are available for people planning to go into public-interest or public sector work in order to help them reduce their debt load?

There are more resources available now than even a few years ago.  There is a federal program called IBR (income-based repayment), in which your Stafford loans are rebated based on income and employment in public-interest law.  Some law schools also have their own LRAP (Loan Repayment Assistance Program), which is similar.  Some law schools are especially known for this kind of program, including CUNY and NYU in New York City.

Some law schools also have specialized scholarship funds for their own students who plan to engage in public-interest work.  These are usually advertised on the admissions/financial aid website.

Nonetheless, when you enter law school, you should be mindful of the possibility that your choice of your first post-graduation job may be partially determined by the need to pay off law school debts.

What are some representative costs and financial aid breakdowns of law schools?

Among the schools represented at our workshop, BC’s tuition is currently at $36K, while its “total cost of attendance” is estimated at $57K per year.  However, 89% of students receive some kind of financial aid, and 49% receive merit scholarships.  The average grant is $15K.

Likewise, 85% of students at Suffolk receive some form of financial aid. 

In contrast, the University of Maine, a public law school, has a tuition of only $26K.

What other factors go into the cost of a law school education?

Consider issues such as the cost of housing.  If you can live at home with your parents, you can save thousands a year on housing.  Also, consider the cost of living in the city where your prospective school is located.  The cost of living is lower in Maine than in New York.  Consider specific programs, such as LRAPs or university scholarships (see above).  And consider hidden costs, such as the cost of airfare to visit family and friends if you go to study far from home.