Six-figure student loan debt = six-figure starting salary. For far too long, that's what many law students have banked on as they invested substantial time and money in getting a juris doctor degree.

Even during a healthy economy, that's always been a gamble: There are only so many high-paying jobs at large firms. The fiercest recession in decades, one that has hit the legal industry hard, has made the cost-benefit analysis even more complex for those considering a law degree. Each year, nearly 50,000 people embark on this increasingly costly three-year graduate course of study. Most will finance their degree with public or private student loans; annual tuition at Minnesota's four law schools ranges from $28,823 to $36,022.

It is troublingly unclear whether prospective students have the information they need to realistically weigh the risks and benefits of a law degree. While some law schools do a better job than others (including several in Minnesota), the bare-minimum approach taken by some makes it difficult for students to determine what kind of job they can expect after graduation and how much they can expect to earn. Too often, the salary and placement information on websites and in popular media makes the postgraduation world look rosier than it is.

Salary information may only reflect graduates who work in private industry, for example, where top students tend to land and where those six-figure starting salaries tend to be. The "median" salary may only be for graduates who chose to report their incomes; those who didn't report back might not be employed, or might have lower salaries.

Aggregated employment rates can be misleading, too. Graduates may be working full-time as attorneys. They may also be working part-time as attorneys, or as paralegals, or in other positions that don't require a law degree. They may also be employed by the law school in postgraduate fellowships, an option that the University of Minnesota provides for graduates to work temporarily with public-interest groups or the government while they pursue full-time employment. The American Bar Association and U.S. News and World Report, which provides or publishes law school placement information, "group in-house counsel with short-order cooks at Waffle House,'' concluded a paper published on the Social Science Research Network website by Kyle P. McEntee and Patrick J. Lynch, two prominent young critics of law school employment information transparency.

To be fair, some law schools -- including Minnesota's William Mitchell School of Law and the University of Minnesota -- have worked to improve the information they offer students and provide additional detail on salaries or what kind of jobs graduates landed. Tim Gorde, a first-year law student at the University of Minnesota, said he felt comfortable with the level of employment information provided by the U. At the same time, Gorde said the quality of information varies from school to school and that a more standardized, detailed approach would be "helpful."

That's why the reaction of law schools across the nation to the Law School Transparency Project -- cofounded by McEntee and Lynch while students at Vanderbilt University School of Law -- is disappointing. The nonprofit organization seeks to clarify employment data and standardize it so that prospective students can decide whether a law degree is worth it.

According to McEntee, who is a third-year student at Vanderbilt, only one small law school in Florida has agreed to comply with the organization's proposed standards. Only a few -- one is William Mitchell -- even bothered to respond to their request. Two Minnesota law schools -- Hamline and St. Thomas -- didn't' respond to a Star Tribune editorial writer's queries about the project. Law schools raise understandable concerns about who this new organization is, but they ought to recognize that its founders are asking valuable questions. Law schools should be learning from McEntee's ahead-of-the-curve organization, which has prospective students' best interests in mind, instead of ignoring it.