California’s best law schools can sometimes be the most cost-efficient. Accredited law schools in California, particularly ABA accredited law schools, can surprisingly offer affordable tuition after factoring in scholarships. If a student is interested in earning a law degree from a highly-regarded California law school that provides both quality education and affordability, there are fortunately good options for those who wish to study law in the Golden State. This article discusses three factors to consider when searching for the best law school: accreditation, cost of attendance and scholarships.

Accredited Law Schools in California

In the Golden State, there are two types of law schools: unaccredited law schools and accredited law schools in California. In addition, there are two types of accredited law schools: California State Bar Accredited law schools and ABA approved law schools. If a person graduates from an ABA approved law school in California, they are eligible to immediately take the bar exam in any state. Both unaccredited and state accredited law school graduates may only take the bar exam in California upon graduation.

In addition, the reason why non-ABA law schools are cheaper than ABA approved law schools is because they do not have to meet the same standards. Some of these law schools do not have to hire full-time professors, student services professionals or career counselors. Unaccredited law schools do not have to offer legal research facilities, and California accredited law schools only need to offer basic law library resources. While unaccredited law schools and state accredited law schools in California are more affordable, they end up being more expensive in the long run. The reason is because these law schools have a lower average bar pass rate than ABA accredited law schools. Therefore, graduates may need to take the bar exam multiple times. The opportunity cost in lost time, coupled with the stress and expense of taking the bar exam multiple times, means that attending a law school that is not approved by the ABA could end up costing prospective attorneys enormous amounts of time and money. Moreover, unaccredited and California accredited law schools do not offer the same career counseling and job prospects as ABA approved law schools. Often, employers in California specify that they are seeking candidates who have graduated from an ABA approved law school.

In terms of quality education and superior career outcomes, ABA approved law schools are often considered among the best law schools in California.

Cost of Attendance at California Law Schools

It is important to consider law schools’ cost of attendance, which includes tuition, room and board, books and supplies, transportation, personal expenses and health insurance. Out of all of these items, tuition is the largest expense. Therefore, it is important to consider which law schools offer the most affordable tuition.

Public ABA-Approved Law Schools in CA Ordered by Full-Time Annual Tuition as of October 2023
Law School Tuition
UC SF (Previously UC Hastings) Resident $54,140
Non-Resident $61,074
UC Davis Resident $53,086
Non-Resident $65,087
UC Irvine (UCI) Resident $51,888
Non-Resident $60,131
UC Los Angeles (UCLA) Resident $53,910
Non-Resident $64,417
UC Berkeley Resident $59,306
Non-Resident $67,816

The tuition figures reported above were sourced either directly from the official school website or from Figures reflect numbers reported as of October 2023.

Private ABA-Approved Law Schools in CA Ordered by Full-Time Annual Tuition as of October 2023
Law School Tuition
Western State College of Law (WSCL) $49,848
Golden Gate University $52,800
University of San Francisco (USF) $52,660
Santa Clara University (SCU) $56,488
Southwestern Law School $56,146
University of The Pacific (McGeorge) $57,788
California Western $58,350
Chapman University (Fowler) $59,500
University of San Diego (USD) $60,861
Loyola Marymount University $63,412
Stanford University $71,610
University of Southern California (USC Gould) $73,998

The tuition figures reported above were sourced either directly from the official school website or from Figures reflect numbers reported as of October 2023.

Most people think that private law school tuition is universally much higher than public law school tuition. However, that is a common misconception. As of July 2022, the cheapest public law school tuition for an ABA approved program in California is UC Hasting’s $44,792 for Residents and $52,732 for Non-Residents. The lowest private school tuition for an ABA approved program is Western State College of Law’s $44,580 for full-time students. Western State’s part-time tuition is even more affordable on an annual basis: $29,800. Western State offers the benefits of a small private law school at a tuition price lower than any other California law school, public or private.

The next-largest expense in a law student’s cost of attendance is typically room and board. For room and board, many law schools do not offer on campus housing, and therefore it is important for students to look at the rent in the cities surrounding the law school. Students need to consider the cost of rent, utilities and food prices in the area where the law school is located. Cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego can have steep rent.

Law School Book CostsIn addition, future law students should take into consideration other costs. For example, the price of books can be expensive, and students should be ready to pay at least $1,000 each school year. Also, many students pay for bar preparation books to study for the bar exam. Transportation can be limited in California because most cities do not have a reliable bus or train system. For those unable to live on campus, driving to law school or carpooling is often the best option. Most law schools will charge for parking, so that is another expense to keep in mind. Personal expenses include buying food, laundry, household supplies, phone service, entertainment, medications and clothes. Childcare is also a major expense if a law student has children. Lastly, health insurance is often included as a fee through the law school. If not, health insurance can be costly through the state if the student does not have health insurance through a job or through their spouse’s job.

Law schools will provide a cost of attendance amount to students so that they know how much to borrow in financial aid loans. The total amount of financial aid, which includes private loans, cannot exceed the total cost of attendance.

It is also important for students to note that the cost of attendance also includes fees, and at certain schools these fees add up quickly. Examples include student center fees, recreation center fees, document fees, student services fees, health insurance fees, Student Bar Association fees, parking fees and technology fees. Some schools may charge thousands of dollars per semester, while other schools only charge a few hundred in fees per year. These fees should be added to the tuition discussed above to arrive at a true cost of attendance. At UC Hastings, the annual fees are $1,243. At Western State, the annual fees are $260.

The different types of law schools, scholarships and total cost of attendance should be considered when students are searching for the law school of their dreams, while still keeping affordability in mind.

Scholarships at California Law Schools

Scholarships are incredibly important to a law student because it is free money that does not need to be paid back like student loans. Law school is expensive, and that means that some lawyers are in debt over $200,000. In order to minimize debt, it is important for students to consider finding a school that can help offset the debt with scholarship money.

Fortunately, at almost all ABA approved law schools in California, generous tuition scholarships covering nearly full tuition are available. Because state accredited law schools typically only offer up to 10% of their tuition in scholarships, the out-of-pocket cost at state accredited law schools can be more expensive than at ABA approved law schools. For example, Western State College of Law offers scholarships up to 95% of tuition for the first year, and in years two and three students can earn up to a full tuition scholarship depending on their law school GPA. This can make tuition at an ABA approved law school very affordable.

Students should learn what scholarships are available since not all law schools have the same scholarship opportunities. Stanford, for example, only offers need-based scholarships.

However, many other California law schools offer merit-based scholarships, diversity scholarships or named scholarships from donors. At Western State, once students are admitted, they will be automatically sent to the Scholarship Committee and may be awarded merit or diversity scholarships. However, it is important to follow the application instructions for law schools in California, because each school has slightly different requirements for qualifying for scholarships.

Students should read the fine print on scholarship offers, because sometimes the stated scholarship amount can be misleading. For example, a law school scholarship letter may state a generous scholarship, but in the fine print it states that this amount is dispersed over three years. When looking at scholarship offers from multiple schools, students should consider the net cost for each year separately.

Law School Tuition ScholarshipsThe net cost is the law school tuition cost minus the scholarship amount from the school. If one law school’s cost of attendance is $80,000 per year and a student earns a $40,000 scholarship, the net cost is $40,000 when you subtract the scholarship from the tuition. If another more affordable law school costs $50,000 per year and a student earns only a $25,000 scholarship, the net cost is $25,000. Although the scholarship at the first law school looks much higher, the cost of attendance is also higher, and the student will end up paying much more for the first school than the second school.

In addition to scholarships that law schools offer, it is important to research outside scholarships that lawyers’ associations, nonprofit organizations and charities offer. A wonderful resource that compiles almost every law school related “outside scholarship” is AccessLex’s Law School Scholarship Databank.

Generous scholarship opportunities, along with affordable tuition, can make many ABA approved law schools within the reach of future law students. By simply comparing accreditation, tuition, scholarships and total cost of attendance, prospective law students can find the best option. In addition, it is important to consider other ways to make law school more affordable, such as procuring law school loans. While law school is often seen as an expensive endeavor, carefully considering and exploring California’s many excellent law school options can yield a cost-efficient choice.

For information regarding California’s most affordable ABA accredited program, you are invited to request a copy of Western State College of Law’s viewbook.