UPDATED 12/16 (The new and revised parts are in italics)
As Alfred Brophy reports, once again law school applicants are down this year. The number of applicants is down 8.5% at this point from last year’s record-low applicant pool.
This will make the fifth straight year of declines from the last application peak in Fall 2010. In 2010, there were 87,900 applicants, 60,400 were admitted to an ABA-accredited law school (69% of applicants) and 52,500 enrolled (87% of those admitted). In 2013, there were 59,400 applicants, and 45,700 were admitted (77%) and 39,700 enrolled (87%). In 2014, there were 54,500 applicants, a 6.7% drop from the previous year. LSAC hasn’t published the final data on the number admitted, but according to data released by the ABA in December, 37,924 enrolled, a 4.5% decrease in enrollment.
For the last four years, enrollment has dropped each year by about two-thirds of the decline in applicants. If the pattern holds true this year, enrollment will decline by about 5.7%, which would put 2015 enrollment at around 35,750.
Year Decline in Applicants Decline in Enrollment
2011 -10.0% -7.7%
2012 -13.7% -9.2%
2013 -12.3% -6.7%
2014 -6.7% -4.5%
2015 -8.5% Projected -5.7%
For the past four years, virtually every law school in the country has been faced with a choice: lower admissions standards, shrink the entering class size, or some combination of the two. As I have previously noted, 95% of law schools have demonstrably lowered their standards and probably the real number is pretty close to 100%. This can be seen not only by the declining LSAT numbers of entering students, but also in the fact that enrollment has not declined at the same rate as the decline in applications.
As I have made clear in several prior posts, it is my opinion that quite a few law schools have gone too far in lowering admissions standards. In an effort to bring in enough revenue to keep operating or to limit the number of faculty and staff that have to be dismissed, a number of schools have admitted students with a highly questionable level of aptitude for the study of law. Some schools may have attempted to justify these practices to themselves by the belief that they were simply trying to ride out an economic downturn and that law school applications would inevitably rebound. Whether one believes that law school applications will eventually rebound, or that the lower demand for legal education represents the new normal, the recent applicant data shows that we have not yet hit bottom. So, once again, this semester law schools will be faced with the decision of whether to further allow admission standards to erode or to adjust the size of the entering class.
In the abstract, it seems obvious that the right thing to do is to draw a line in the sand and refuse to lower standards even further, especially at the lower-tier schools which are already scraping the bottom of the talent pool. Whatever law school you are associated with, as an employee or as an alumnus, there is no benefit to you, or to the profession as a whole, to have a less capable group of students entering the pipeline to the legal profession each year. But a decline of 8.5% in enrollment would represent a huge decrease in tuition revenue (the primary source of revenue for virtually all law schools) -- at least 8.5%, but probably more, as competition for law students at all levels has meant that law schools have had to discount their tuition more and more each year. Such a significant decrease will most likely mean painful cuts to faculty, staff, and/or programs, unless law schools can determine ways to cut costs in other areas, or increase revenues. Five years into the great law school recession, most law schools have presumably found all the obvious ways to cut costs and explored feasible alternatives for increasing revenues. The low-hanging fruit having been picked, more and more law schools are going to be faced with some very difficult choices.
In this post, I will explore some of those choices and offer some ways that law schools might cut costs so they will not have to lower standards any further. I invite those with other good ideas, either theoretical or based on experience at their schools, to share them in the comments.