The first step in your financial planning is to figure out how much law school is going to cost.
Every school publishes its current tuition figures on its website. Each school also calculates and publishes its annual “cost of attendance,” or COA (sometimes referred to as the “student budget”). This figure includes actual costs for tuition, fees, and school-provided health insurance, as well as estimated costs for books, rent, and food. It does not include transportation costs, entertainment, credit card debt or car payments. The COA gives you both a good gauge for your possible overall costs (should you receive no financial aid), but also delimits the amount the school will certify you to borrow from the federal government (or, in some cases, private sources). The school’s COA, minus any scholarships you receive, any savings you currently have, and any anticipated earnings, equals the amount you’ll be able to borrow.
Scholarship offers—most of which are merit-based these days—can vary widely from school to school. So you can’t really compare the cost of different schools until your receive your scholarship offers. That said, as you might imagine based on your UMass experience, public schools generally have a lower sticker price than private schools, but have less money to offer in scholarships. As of summer 2013, the least expensive posted tuition at an ABA-accredited school was resident tuition at the University of Puerto Rico, coming in at just under $8,000/year (on the mainland, it’s the University of North Dakota at about $10,400; in the Northeast, the only school with tuition below $15,000 is CUNY School of Law’s in-state cost). The most expensive sticker price is Columbia’s $55,000. Note that ranking does not necessarily correlate with cost. In New England, for example, while Harvard and Yale are the priciest, Quinnipiac comes in third.
Financial aid applications vary from school to school, and are generally not submitted at the same time as you apply to law school. However, almost every school relies on the FAFSA for gathering information about your financial situation. You should plan to complete yours as soon as possible in January of the year you’re applying (you’ll need your, and possibly your parents’, tax forms for the prior year). Some law schools have additional forms they require to be submitted. These are not available on the LSAC website, but only from each individual school. If you have questions, contact the school directly, and they’ll be happy to help you out.
Once you accept an offer from a specific law school, you will work closely with its financial aid office to plan the financing of your education. They will guide you through the various programs and their requirements. Law school financial aid offices serve a much smaller population and tend to be more “user-friendly” than what you may be used to. Never hesitate to contact them with your questions and concerns. If, for example, you don’t agree with their determination of your existing resources, give them a call and set up a meeting to discuss your situation. In all likelihood, they will work something out with you. (This makes more sense once you remember that very little law school financial aid comes in the form of need-based scholarships from the school; rather, it comes from federal loans. If you can’t afford the tuition, they’ll often simply certify you to borrow more, at no cost to the school.)