2011 a Sudden Drop for Law Schools, but Not Their Worst Year Ever

Hidden on the ABA’s Web site is the remainder of the 2013 edition of the ABA-LSAC Official Guide to ABA Law School (PDF), which includes all kinds of tables consolidating the information found on the LSAC’s Official Guide site. This makes inputting the data a lot easier and gives us the opportunity to get a clear look at what happened to law schools between 2010 and 2011. The short answer: a sudden drop for law schools but still not a bad year.

Preliminarily, the application decline was not localized to any one region, as we’d expect.

To see just how abrupt the nosedive was, here’s the rate of change of full-time applications. The blue line is the median public law school, the red line, the median private law school.

But as I wrote last week, it’s the number of matriculants that matters, so here’re the system-wide changes.

You can see that there were more matriculants in 2011 than in the last trough year, 2007. Also obvious is that law schools accepted close to the same number of applications in 2011 as in 2010 even though there were about as many applications as in 2006. Things for the typical law school, however, are a little different.

For the average law school, 2008 was the matriculant trough year, and 2011 is actually more like 2006 than 2007 or 2008 nationwide. Regionally, although it’s a little unclear, some places were still higher in 2011 than in 2008. For instance, the boom the Southeast has seen hasn’t let up.

Between 2004 and 2011, seven law schools were accredited in that region (15.9 percent growth, includes Ave Maria, which moved from the Great Lakes). More than half the net law school growth in the previous seven years was in the Southeast, and you can see it easily.

Doing the math, cumulative full-time matriculant growth above the 2007 trough is dominated by Southeastern law schools.

I bring this up because sometimes the media will interview law school deans outside of these high growth regions about the number of applications their schools have been receiving, even though the story is about (a) who’s matriculating and why and (b) what’s going on in the Southeast and the Mideast. True, some of these new Southern schools have been around for a while and have only recently become accredited, but I think there’s something to be said about the impact of the newer law schools from Virginia through the Carolinas.

The fun question, which I can’t answer yet, is whether the 2011 matriculants have significantly lower LSAT scores than in previous declining years, like 2006. I can tell you that the change from 2010 is there, but it’s subtle, like, less than a one point drop in the 25th percentile at most schools. Among the 199 law schools surveyed (UC Irvine wasn’t in the Official Guide last year but La Verne was this year, surprisingly), the 75th percentile saw a net drop of 63 LSAT points, down 70 points in the 50th percentile, and -149 in the 25th percentile. You can see how many law schools were affected here:

And for the most part, the “spans” between the percentiles grew as well, more so on the low end.

Finally, here’s the distribution of the numeric change in LSAT points by their latest U.S. News ranking. Private law schools suffered the most last year. As I said, though, it’s barely perceptible, and seven of those points in the 25th percentile were at Emory. Illinois accounts for seven points in the public schools 25th percentile largely because its LSAT fraud came to light in September 2011.

For my last trick, here’s what happened to all those “golden,” “scavenger,” “indie,” and “marginal” law schools I wrote about a while back. The labels have not been updated for 2011, so this is what happened to those law schools that year (to say nothing of 2004-2010).

From an empirical perspective, the biggest fly in the ointment is the fact that applicants and law schools have increasingly favored electronic applications in the 2000s, which increases law schools’ acceptance rates and generally lowers their yields too, even when the number of applicants and law schools is the same, something else to keep in mind when law school administrators compare their number of applicants this year to previous ones. Nevertheless, you can see how many more law schools accept around 70 percent of their full-time applicants than in the past.

Returning to the scavenger law schools, there are still many places that reject many applicants and whose accepted applicants aren’t interested in attending anyway. The fact that these schools exist at all surprised me because I figured most people who apply to places like Duke or Cornell or Georgetown really want to go there when in fact a lot of them are either settling or are bought off with scholarships. It turns out that the average T-14 law school actually accepts more applicants than average lower-ranked law schools do. This implies that there’s a 25th percentile LSAT breakpoint, say 165, where a lot of law schools can survive by rejecting anyone below that number and survive on applicants who really do see them as safety schools. Something to explore in the future.

By the way, did I mention that 2011 law graduates paid out $3.9 billion or more in student loans to their law schools?

The x-axis in previous versions of the law school debt blob animation stopped at 90 million. I had to redo it this year because in 2011, one law school made more than $101 million off its 999 mostly underemployed graduates: Cooley.

下課

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