Economics Faculty Holger Sieg on Study about Student Debt

Law school graduates often leave their programs burdened with debt that can top six figures. Research from the University of Pennsylvania and Ryerson University shows that this debt, coupled with recently stagnant median first-year salaries, can negatively influence the career choices and partner prospects for new female lawyers.

“Women with more student debt stay longer in private-sector jobs, postpone marriage, marry men with lower earnings and delay childbearing,” economists Holger Sieg of Penn and Yu Wang of Ryerson wrote in a National Bureau of Economic Research white paper. In contrast, males with similar student debt don’t tend to change either factor.

In economics terms, that’s called an asymmetric effect, explained Sieg, the J.M. Cohen Term Professor of Economics. In other words, the same influencers led to different outcome choices for different groups.

“Most male graduates from law school are fairly career-oriented, and whether they have debt to pay back is not going to change whether they will pursue a career in the private sector,” he said. “For women we found it’s a lot more problematic.”

Sieg and Wang used information provided by more than 1,300 female lawyers in two datasets. The first, from the American Bar Association and the National Association for Law Placement, called After the JD, follows 12 years of employment history for a nationally representative sample of lawyers admitted to the bar in 2000. The second, from the U.S. Department of Education, focuses on financial aid.

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