Staying out of debt is more important than the school you attend

Should Canadians, with limited means, be willing to hand over huge sums of money to attend certain law schools in Canada?

Ryan Handlarski

Like any Canadian kid, I grew up watching American television. Beverly Hills 90210, Saved by the Bell, the Cosby Show, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and any other American show I could name would have a distinctly similar message when it comes to the issue of “college” – Americans are absolutely obsessed with the “college” people attend (sorry Americans, it should be called a university).

The “college” that Americans attend stays with them for their entire lives. I noticed this recently in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh when he defended himself by referring to his alma mater:  

“Senator, you were asking about college. I got into Yale Law School. That’s the number one law school in the country. I had no connections there. I got there by busting my tail in college.”

Brett Kavanaugh graduated from Yale Law School in 1990.  Putting the sexual assault allegations and other criticisms against him out of the picture for a moment, it is astounding to me the powerful hold on their sense of identity that the law school they attended has on Americans for their entire lives.  No wonder Americans are prepared to hand over nearly $100,000 to attend a year of law school at Harvard and $85,000 per year to attend law school at Yale.   

But should Canadians, with limited means, be willing to hand over huge sums of money to attend certain law schools in Canada? Another way of asking this question is to ask: are the circumstances when it comes to law schools and their relationship with the legal profession in any way comparable to the circumstances in the United States?   

A professor at the University of Calgary who had attended the University of Toronto law school recently tweeted that the tuition at her alma mater is now $37,000 per year, while it is only approximately $13,000 at the University of Calgary and that she could not say the education at U of T was superior to the education at the University of Calgary. 

To this I thought that her assertion does not answer prospective law students’ main question. Prospective law students do not really care whether U of T has a superior education to other law schools. Prospective law students care about the impact their law school has on their status and the impact that their status has on their career prospects. This calculation is no different than someone who purchases a Lexus instead of a Toyota. In most cases, the driver of the Lexus does not really care if the Lexus is not all that much better of a car than the Toyota that is $50,000 cheaper. The driver of the Lexus cares about the perception of other people and whether they value the expensive car. 

While the logic of the Lexus driver might be sound, I have concluded that there are no Lexus law schools or Toyota law schools in Canada. There are starkly different circumstances in the United States and Canada when it comes to law school and the relationship to the legal profession. 

There are over 200 law schools in the United States and there is so much disparity in quality between them that the leading ranking publication, the U.S. News and World Report, divides the American law schools into four tiers. 

The employment statistics and bar-passage rates among the law schools in the United States vary widely and reveal a tremendous disparity in at least the quality of the students, if not the quality of the education. And in the United States, there has always been an Ivy-League, elite level of school that is thought of as a badge of honour that stays with the student for life, as demonstrated by Brett Kavanaugh at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. 

None of these circumstances exist in Canada. Canadian lawyers do not centralize their law school in their identity. There are no tier-four law schools in Canada. No Canadian with a 30-year career in law who became a Supreme Court judge would have the law school they attended as top of mind in their of achievements. 

Because we do not have elite ivy league law schools and tier-four schools in Canada, it is my view that the much more important question is where you will be happy. Rather than asking which law school has the highest ranking, students in Canada should be asking themselves: Where will I be the happiest? Where will I be the most engaged? From your own interest, comfort, happiness and engagement will come opportunities and achievement.

It is my view that for many students, debt is a very important part of where you will be happiest and people should be thinking about the impact that debt will have on their mental well-being. For many people, carrying a six-figure debt and entering a profession where the job market is competitive and there is no guarantee of a job or stable career path can be psychologically battering and draining at the same time. You may not be happy carrying such a debt load. And if you are unhappy, you may not achieve to the level of your ability or expectations.

I know that I would not have been happy and would not have been able to achieve my best if I were carrying that kind of debt load. Therefore, it would not make sense to pay $37,000 per year in tuition when there is an option to pay $13,000. 

For those who are prepared to pay that amount in tuition at a Canadian law school, a lot of them believe in circumstances that simply do not exist. They are just watching too much American television.

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