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Welcome to law school. Now cough up the cash, please. Just because a school has lecture halls, libraries, and a rare book collection, all of which bestow an aura of a hallowed sanctum of learning, does not mean that it hovers outside the sphere of financial reality. Schools are constantly finding new ways to bring in money to support the law school program. Often, these forms of assistance come through alumni support, fundraisers, and even bake sales (which can be quite tasty). Primarily, though, the vein through which a school sucks its fiscal blood is the age-old method known in academia as "Bleeding the Student Dry." And this method is quite effective.
Oh, yes, to get your chance to pull in the hefty bucks as a high falootin' big firm attorney, defending asbestos manufacturers and those harmless tobacco companies, you must pay, and pay dearly. Before you are granted that shiny J.D. at the end of three years of that nonstop joyride we here refer to as law school, it will be your school's job to make sure that you feel the financial impact of that privilege.
Invariably on the page of the school's brochure where tuition is discussed there will be pictures of very attractive male and female law students with quotes stating how they "love the community" of the school and "enjoy the challenge" that the study of law brings.
These photo layouts of attractive people are actually products of years of joint hard work from a New York ad firm and a psychological research firm that are designed specifically to distract you from the fact that when the brochure says "$11,000," it's not "per year"-it's "per semester."
Also not included in the glossy brochure is that it is not uncommon for tuition to "automatically" increase at the rate of 5 percent per year. While 5 percent might not seem like much if you are buying a classic Vanilla Ice album or a commercial outline for your Contracts exam, 5 percent of $22,000 is more than $1,000. It might be a good idea to ask the financial aid office at your school what the traditional rate of increase of tuition is per year. If the office claims that it varies from year to year and you cannot get a straight answer, do a little research and check out tuition costs for the past five or so years to get a good idea of previous rate increases.
Speaking of financial aid, the first thing you need to do is find out where the financial aid office is located at your school. Generally, it will be near the administrative offices. If you happen to walk into a room filled with tons of paper and tape, you haven't stumbled into a supply room: Congratulations, you've found the financial aid office! Overflowing with red tape and forms in triplicate, quadruplicate, and quintuplicate, the financial aid office is the nerve center of all things concerning how you will finance your law school education. At its best, the financial aid office is a fruitful resource center and efficient document-processing center. You will be able to get information on your financial aid status and process your stacks of financial documents at the same time. At its worst, the financial aid office is a burgeoning jungle of bureaucracy, misinformation, delays, lost forms, and frustration. More often than not, though, the financial aid experience only becomes a nightmare when a student has broken one of the four cardinal rules of financial aid.
GATHER YOUR RESOURCES-YOU'RE IN FOR THE LONG HAUL
Hooray! It's time to figure out how the heck you'll be paying for an education that costs more per year than two mid-sized cars (or just one really large pony). How will you pay? After ruling out blood donations as an option (or after running out of blood to give), it's time to look at your resources.
First, check out what you have in terms of savings. You may want to apply any money you currently have toward tuition or living expenses while you're in school. Or you may want to use your savings for moving expenses, your new apartment, or replacing that futon with a real mattress (you'll thank yourself later). No matter what you decide to do with your savings, if any, you'll want to figure out the total cost of living and going to school.
For this task, every school has a pre-set budget for the school year. This budget includes tuition, fees, school supplies, rent, living expenses, and tequila (though financial aid offices will refer to that last item as generic "recreational expenses"). Budgets vary from school to school, depending mainly on location, cost of living, and tuition. For example, a private law school in Boston with tuition of $20,000 per year may have a total student budget of $38,000, while a private law school in Spokane with tuition of $20,000 per year may have a total student budget of $30,000. This is because the cost of living in Boston is much higher than in Spokane.
No matter what the budget is, think of it as a financial ceiling. If your school has set the budget to $38,000 for the school year, then the total amount of financial aid you may receive is limited to that amount. This includes grants, scholarships, and loans. All financial aid you receive is checked through your financial aid office. So if you've already borrowed $38,000 for the school year and want to borrow $5,000 to go on that steamy singles cruise in the Mediterranean, your financial aid office will politely inform the bank that you've already borrowed as much as allowed under your financial aid plan for the year. Your financial aid office will then politely inform you that you need to find a less expensive way to get a date.
So you've checked your savings. Have you begged your family for money? Don't laugh. Parents who were reluctant to pay for your four-year, nonstop decadence binge called college might be willing to help you a little bit with a serious endeavor like law school (little do they know the truth). On the flip side, parents who did foot the bill for your four-year, nonstop decadence binge may see that, instead of waking up safely from your undergrad stupor in a gutter, you woke up and found yourself in law school. Aghast, they may simply cut you off and never speak to you again for your desire to be a lawyer-but that's your personal issue, isn't it?
In any case, you may just want to stifle your pride and see if any close relatives might be willing to contribute to your cause.
If you have enough money to pay for the whole thing and don't ever plan on entering the financial aid office, except perhaps to ask to use the stapler, skip this article.
You have a little money or no money? No problem. That's where the magical world of financial aid comes in. Read on, future debtor!