This past month has seen two important initiatives addressing barriers created by untenably high (and rising) tuition rates in Ontario law schools:

(1) The Osgoode Initiative for Income Contingent Loans; and

(2) The LSSO “Just or Bust” survey on law school student debt.

We offer our analysis of these new initiatives. (For our take on Osgoode’s Initiative for Income Contingent Loans click HERE). We believe these efforts are helpful developments in the fight to address rising tuition rates. Though neither initiative is or purports to be an answer to the current student debt problem, recognition of the problem and a call to action are exactly what the hour calls for, and on that point this initiatives hit the mark.

 

The LSSO “Just or Bust” Survey on Law School Student Debt

At last! Law Students Society of Ontario (LSSO) provides very much needed and long over due statistics. Thanks to the LSSO we now have the data to back-up what students have felt across the province for many years in terms of the financial pressure caused by rising law tuition in Ontario.

 

The LSSO is building a campaign to fight the rise of law school tuition by answering the question of why there is a problem in the first place. The critical importance of the “Just or Bust” survey is that it provides an articulate quantification, through some pretty rigorous analysis, of what rising tuition rates mean for Ontario law students. The LSSO survey will add important weight to the student voice and make it difficult to dismiss critiques and concerns about the status quo as the vague musings of whining malcontents. They can’t ignore us now!

 

The LSSO Report is based on results from 941 Respondents across five participating law schools in Ontario: University of Ottawa, Osgoode Hall, University of Toronto, Western University and Windsor. It breaks down indebtedness of law students, looking at pre-law school debt burdens of students and projections of post law school debt across Ontario law schools. The report also specifically looks at student reliance upon private loans including securing lines of credit with a financial institution.

 

The Report makes two very important findings: (1) 30% of law students expect to graduate from law school debt free; and (2) for the 70% of law students who graduate with a debt burden, the estimated average debt is $71,444.

 

1. Those with pre-existing need not (and in fact do not) apply.

We can infer from these stats that undergraduate students with no debt – or – those who have managed to pay off student debt tend to apply for law school. As a result, there appears to be a financial barrier at the entry level which impedes students from applying to law school based on financial means, savings and/or the necessity to service pre-existing debts.

 

2. Leave your social justice dreams at the door.

The existing rates of debt experienced by graduating students suggest that a large majority of students graduating from Ontario law schools will be faced with significant carry-forward debt burdens. What this means is that students facing the highest amount of debt burden will be limited in their job search and unable to take jobs that offer lower pay. For students interested in careers in social justice, (for example: anti-poverty law, legal aid positions, human rights and immigration), having a high debt burdens is effectively a barrier to employment within that field. Coupled with the escalation of litigation costs and the inaccessibility of the system to disenfranchised litigants, the problem of rising tuition rates is exacerbating the problem access to justice. Fewer and fewer students are able to realize their ambitions of a career in social justice lawyering.

 

The LSSO survey underscores the importance of why a student voice is needed to push not only law schools, but also all concerned stakeholders in the profession towards advocating for reduced law school tuition. Students must wield their power and work with allies truly committed to increasing accessibility.

 

However, effective advocacy and alliances must go beyond mere representation. We should not rule out direct action that goes beyond petitions and formal presentations to the Province. While systemic engagement is part of the strategy, law students and the legal community must consider more radical engagement including student strikes, non-payment of loans and targeted campaigns that seek to target stakeholders in an attempt to create greater transparency and democracy within the scheme of law school tuition payment.

 

A2J’s upcoming October 25, 2014 First Assembly intends to provide a platform for an exchange of ideas to build strategic alliances and out of the box thinking. Read more about the Assembly here.

 

Be sure to read this ground-breaking report:  “Just or Bust: Results of the 2014 Survey of Ontario Law Students’ Tuition, Debt & Student Financial Aid Experiences”

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