As you can see, I’ve been on a law school input kick recently, completely accidental. Although I’ve been aware of the LSAC Volume Summary for quite a while, the ABA’s chunk of the Official Guide also provides some numbers going back to the 80s (it’s completely wrong about the total number of LSATs in the 2010-2011 cycle though). This discovery along with a fairly good analysis about law schools reducing their enrollments by a few dozen at Inside Higher Ed, has prompted me to take another look at what’s happening. Here’s today’s pertinent quote:
Applications to law schools dropped about 11 percent this year after a spike last year. The reason behind this decline has been debated, with some individuals arguing that students took note of the grim job market and balked at taking out significant loans to pay for a legal education. Others argue that applications for law schools, like those for business schools, tend to be counter-cyclical. Individuals seek professional degrees when they don’t think there could be better options in the workforce, and spike in recessions. Between 2008 and 2009, the number of individuals taking the LSAT jumped from 151,398 to 171,514, according to the Law School Admissions Council. But with some economic recovery in 2010, that number receded to 155,050.
As I’ve written before, things are more complicated than people think.
Here’re a couple better graphs than the one I published last week.
I’m not going to labor through correlation coefficients again, but look at how little applicants per capita has increased in the wake of the financial collapse. As the second graph shows, we hit peak law school applicants in the previous recession in the mid-2000s, though law schools increased their incoming classes in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years. However, the 1L bump is only slightly higher than the mid-2000s’ and still lower than in the late 1980s and early 1990s, even if we must accept that it is more destructive now due to higher tuition rates and poorer long-term employment prospects. Nonetheless, claims of an “explosion” in law school enrollments over the last decade are exaggerated, and from a macro level the enrollment reductions we’re hearing of are cosmetic. So far.
The Inside Higher Ed article did blow it on one important point: it claimed applications are down 11% this year. Actually, the WSJ article it links to said that as of March 2011, applicants are down 11.5% compared to March 2010. This is more significant because as the second graph above shows, the number of applicants hasn’t really grown a whole lot. Here’re the actual numbers:
Applications surged (partly, I suspect, due to an increase in electronic submission practices by 2004, but perhaps law schools also nixed early decision processes); applicants did not. Check out the ratio:
So what’s really been happening is applicants were sending out more apps while their numbers were stable. Now, they’re decreasing. If we assume the 11.5% holds, then we’re looking at a reduction from 87,900 applicants in 2010 to 78,834 in 2011. As I write this, the Census clock estimates 311.6 million U.S. residents, leaving us 2.53 applicants per 10,000 residents, which is below the 1985 nadir, a record low. That’s significant because higher education administrators think prospective applicants are only “getting the message” now. As the WSJ relays:
“When the economy first went down, students saw law school as a way to dodge the work force,” said Ryan Heitkamp, a pre-law adviser at Ohio State University. “The news has gotten out that law school is not necessarily a safe backup plan.”
At Fordham University School of Law in New York, applications this year are down 15%, and those applying “appear to have analyzed the investment in law school closely and are serious about pursuing a career in law,” said Carrie Johnson, a school spokeswoman.
This is my favorite:
Kent Syverud, dean of the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, where applications this year declined more than 11%, said it was a good thing prospective students now were more “clear eyed” about the risks and rewards of a law degree.
“The froth in the applicant pool—those who were just going to law school because they didn’t know what else to do and everyone told them it was a safe bet—is pretty well gone,” he said.
For the record, Dean Syverud’s “froth” between 2008 and 2010 was only 4% per capita. By comparison, the 2001 to 2003 froth was 26.5% per capita.
The statements above, of course, should be taken with great skepticism. How do law school deans know the motivations of those who choose not to apply to law school? (There’s a koan for you.) How many potentially brilliant legal minds have wisely chosen to avoid the floundering legal academy? Why should we believe that current applicants are nobler in their intents than those staying away? And why did law schools increase their enrollments 5% per capita between fall 2008 and fall 2010 when they knew or should’ve known that some of their applicants were merely trying to avoid unemployment?
Law schools want the public to think the evil, greedy prospective law students are staying clear. Instead, they should be worrying about when this applicant nosedive will affect their bottom lines.