I'm pretty sure I spent about 250k+ to go to law school. Some was loans, some was earnings, some savings. I didn't live well at all. Figure $50k/yr for tuition+ fees, 21,000/yr for a crappy, tiny apartment near school, $6k/yr for a crappy, tiny apartment near the summer job, $3k/yr for travel expenses (flying to interviews, going from school city to job city etc) and you are up to ~$80k x 3 = $240,000 before you buy any food, books, local transport, clothes, etc.
If you are going to an ELITE school you worrying about the debt probably does not matter much. If you are going to a the 98th best school or something the odds of a Biglaw coming your way are minimal. I believe for those who actually get hired the average salary might be somewhere in the neighborhood of 60-70k. That 70k is going to get taxed and you are going to have bills to pay rent, food, transportation, etc. If you have a 160k loan hovering over your head that is accruing 8% interest you are going to be paying for a piece of paper the same way you would a house. It might take you 25 years to pay off and if you are going through all that to go the 98th best school instead of the 112th then it probably is not a smart decision. At a T14 school the opportunities for Big Law and getting a lucrative job are much higher and maybe the extra cost is worth it.
So, it seems a bit dangerous to assume that the option is between Top 14 at a very high cost or somewhere below at a modest cost. There really isn't any such thing. Even the economical MSL is more expensive than I paid (again even adjusting for inflation). I wonder whether I would have considered my options differently had I not had the option of a nearly-free education (with scholarships in years 2-3). Thane.
I agree with everything you said, but I don't think you understood my point. I think there is no question you should go to a T14 if you have the chance period. There are varying degrees of schools, but considering there are 200 ABA schools and only 25% of them are tier 1 it leaves 75% of law students in the tier 2,3,4 range. Many students will take on 80k more in debt or move across the country to go to a tier 3 instead of a tier 4. That is just not smart and 75% of incoming students will be facing this same dilemma in the next few months. I was going to go to Michigan State and pay 60k more in tuition and live in a state where I have no connections and have no desire to live. The only reason I was going to go was because it was tier 3 wow. Nobody would have cared Michigan State was tier 3. Maybe it does fine in Michigan, but I have no desire to live there and from what I understand Michigan is really not doing to hot. On the other hand I have a million friends in San Francisco and my fiance's family had a house I could live in rent free. There was no logical reason for me to go to Michigan, but in my idiotic mind I thought going to a tier 3 was worth taking on 60k more in tuition god knows how much more I would have had to take out in living expenses considering I am living rent free right now. Not to mention I would have been in freaking Michigan in subzero temperatures I am a California kid and the weather alone would have killed me.
So bottom line is I have no problem with the rankings going up to 25 maybe 50, but after that just get rid of it.
In another very important law school rankings issue, at my AALS convention session, "U.S. News Rankings: An Inside Look into the U.S. News Law School Rankings," I said that U.S. News is considering expanding the number of law schools we numerically rank for the new Best Law Schools rankings coming out in mid-March 2011. We are contemplating numerically ranking the top 75 percent of all the law schools, or around the top 150 law schools. Currently, we numerically rank around the top 50 percent of law schools, or top 100. This would mean the current schools that are in Tier 3 would be numerically ranked, instead of being listed alphabetically as they are now.