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Today’s law grad: Six figures in debt and heading to Bay Street

Many parents dream of sending their child to law school. Many young people dream of going. Yet with first year tuition at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law projected to top $30,000 a year this September, legal education is increasingly out of reach for many Canadians.

Tuition fees at UofT Law were $2451 in 1995. Since 2006, annual tuition fee increases have been the maximum allowed by the Province's Reaching Higher framework: eight per cent, in place until last Thursday. While UofT's law tuition is highest, tuition at Ontario's other law schools is rising at similar rates.

Students are sounding the alarm. Nearly two thirds of the Faculty have signed a petition calling for the administration to work with students to find a way around high annual tuition increases.

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Students are deeply worried about the effect of astronomical tuition on the accessibility and diversity of the law school. While internal efforts to tweak the distribution of financial aid resources is useful, it cannot fix the problem. The Faculty is unique in its financial aid approach, distributing aid based on student need rather than academic merit. Still, financial aid is a finite resource and there are immense financial challenges for low-income students who are accepted to the Faculty.

The legal profession's reputation as an old boys' club is notorious. Law schools have made moderate progress in diversifying class profiles at law schools, though there is immense work to be done. There was hope that increasingly diverse graduating classes would gradually correct the under-representation of many groups in the profession. The high cost of a legal education threatens to undo this progress.

Additionally, students are worried about broader effects on access to justice. Everyone should be worried. Skyrocketing tuition affects access to law school, but it also affects the public's access to legal services. Middle-class students who don't receive substantial financial aid finance their education primarily through commercial loans, graduating well over $100,000 in debt. What does a student that far in debt do after graduation? Whatever she can to make her payments.

Law is a service profession. Lawyers come into people's lives at moments of tremendous stress, when individuals face daunting circumstances like divorce, criminal conviction, will preparation, or immigration applications. The public is best served by a legal profession that is competitive, diverse and representative. Debt pressure distorts the career choices of law graduates. Faced with the realities of $1500 plus in monthly repayments, students are driven to the income potential of large firm, corporate work. New lawyers are increasingly unable to consider work at affordable rates, or streams of practice that directly serve middle or lower-class clients. Those clients face a justice system increasingly unaffordable and out of reach. The more graduates who are required to turn away from smaller firm work, the deeper this problem will get.

Solutions within faculties can only go so far. Reduced government support for postsecondary education contributes significantly to the problem. In 1995, cuts to federal transfers resulted in significant postsecondary funding cuts. Except for a tuition freeze from 2004-2006, tuition fees in Ontario have significantly outpaced inflation. Professional faculties have felt shrunken funding sources most intensely. Twenty years ago, public funding represented almost 75 per cent of university budgets, today it makes up just under half of universities budgets, and only 10 per cent of the budget at the UofT Law. The recent announcement that increases in professional tuition fees will be capped at 5 per cent for the next four years is a step. But 5 per cent a year will still result in an increase of over $6000 in the next four years, and tuition fees will surpass $60,000 in 15 years.

Continued increases well above inflation are unsustainable. They will shut qualified candidates out of the profession, or drive them into careers determined by debt repayment. The profession will suffer if it excludes those who would bring diverse backgrounds and perspectives to legal practice. And the public will suffer, as affordable legal services will become increasingly hard to find.

We need a broader approach to solutions including income-based loan forgiveness, a return to government investment in professional education and lowering tuition. It is time for the faculties and the province to find a better solution.

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Sarah Rankin is a second year JD/MA Criminology and Sociolegal studies student at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law.

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