In 2006, Congress extended the federal Direct PLUS Loan program to allow a graduate or professional student to borrow the full amount of tuition, no matter how high, and living expenses. The idea was to give more people access to higher education and thus, in theory, higher lifetime earnings. But broader access doesn’t mean much if degrees lead not to well-paying jobs but to heavy debt burdens. That is all too often the result with PLUS loans.
The consequences of this free flow of federal loans have been entirely predictable: Law schools jacked up tuition and accepted more students, even after the legal job market stalled and shrank in the wake of the recession. For years, law schools were able to obscure the poor market by refusing to publish meaningful employment information about their graduates. But in response to pressure from skeptical lawmakers and unhappy graduates, the schools began sharing the data — and it wasn’t a pretty picture. Forty-three percent of all 2013 law school graduates did not have long-term full-time legal jobs nine months after graduation, and the numbers are only getting worse. In 2012, the average law graduate’s debt was $140,000, 59 percent higher than eight years earlier.