The applicant plunge is not a PR problem. Schools cannot just demonstrate and appeal to a lifetime wage and opportunity premium. Although applicants expect both, people do not typically make standard investment analyses. Applicants consider a variety of factors, key among them that student loan repayment begins only six months after graduation.
I can’t say I blame them. Monthly payments for borrowers without family support exceed $3000 at several top law schools, even with a generous scholarship. Significant student debt undermines aspirations college graduates have for their 20s and 30s: a fulfilling career, home ownership, marriage and kids, active community participation, financial freedom. Massive debt also deeply affects students on a psychological and emotional level.
Law schools need to substantially lower prices so student debt stops scaring so many applicants away. Safety nets like income-based repayment make worst-case scenarios tolerable, but do little to quell concerns related to quality-of-life aspirations. Tuition increases have been internally justified for decades on the belief that law school was a great deal. But until law schools account for how today’s applicants think about their future, too many potential lawyers will make other arrangements—maybe to their detriment, but certainly to the legal profession’s.