I’ve had the privilege over the last year of working with two exceptionally skilled and thoughtful empirical investigators—Jerry Organ of the University of St. Thomas School of Law; and Emma Rasiel, Associate Chair of the Duke University Department of Economics. The question that brought us together, which began with a conversation Jerry Organ and I struck up when we found ourselves stranded in New York by the blizzard at the end of the 2014 AALS conference, is whether we could develop reasonably rigorous but accessible ways of describing quantitatively how the American legal academy had changed in recent years in reaction to the circumstances changing around it.
As our work unfolded, the task became twofold: First to depict how the academy had changed; and then to see if we could find any patterns in the changes (whether or not consciously strategic) among law schools with shared characteristics. The result is our new paper Competitive Coping Strategies in the American Legal Academy: An Empirical Study. It will be published by the good folks at the Nevada Law Journal early next year, and a draft is now posted on SSRN here. We think that many interested spectators will find some of the paper’s observations surprising.
We start with a description of how—and importantly, how much—the legal academy has changed. Most readers of this space and other legal education enthusiasts are aware of the contraction in the new-graduate job market that began after 2007, and the substantial decline in both the number and the conventional qualifications of applicants to law school that began after 2010. But you may not appreciate how widespread and serious its effects have been. For the vast majority of American law schools, those effects have been somewhere between significant and devastating.
From 2010-11 through 2016-17, the number of unique applicants to accredited law schools fell 36%, and the number of applications fell a little less than 44%. The conventional metrics by which most admissions decisions are made—Law School Admissions Test (“LSAT”) scores and undergraduate grade-point average (“UGPA”)—declined even more, as more highly credentialed applicants disproportionately stayed away. For example, while the number of applicants overall fell 36%, the number of applicants with LSAT scores greater than 160 (roughly the 80th percentile of all test-takers) fell 46%, while those with scores under 150 (roughly the 44th percentile) fell only 27%. All this has been widely discussed.
But the effects on the academy have been profound, and far more widespread than many realize. By 2016-17, the average accredited American law school had an entering class that was nearly one-third smaller and had a median LSAT score seven percentiles lower than in 2010-11. And while Base Tuition (a school’s published “sticker price”) had risen 15% on average over that period, the average tuition discount per student had doubled, causing the average net tuition paid per student to fall over 6% in constant dollars.
Unsurprisingly, these effects were not distributed evenly across the academy. Instead, sectors of the academy distinguished by their relative overall reputation for quality were affected quite differently. Yes, a small handful of super-elite law schools were essentially unaffected, but that handful is smaller than you may think. A number of top-20 law schools had to substantially increase their tuition discounting in order to maintain their entering-class LSAT scores. More generally, the entering classes of the top-third strongest schools reputationally shrank on average only 13% and dropped 3 LSAT percentiles, while the reputationally weaker two-thirds on average shrank by over a third and nearly a half respectively, while dropping 14-15 LSAT percentiles. Effects on tuition revenue were also pronounced. Even top-third schools reputationally lost an average of $5.9 million per school in annual tuition revenue comparing 2016-17 with 2010-11, while reputationally weaker schools lost on average $11 million to $12 million annually each (in constant 2018 dollars). We estimate that aggregate annual tuition revenue for all accredited American law schools fell over $1.5 billion in current dollars between its inflation-adjusted peak in 2011-12 and 2016-17.
We offer a chart with details on the changes by reputational group and further discussion of what's happened in the last ten years after the jump.