Tough Choices for Some High-Ranked Law Schools

During the peak of the applications cycle, local newspapers have often run pieces about how their locale’s law schools are faring. Examples I’ve seen are here for Chicago and here for Ohio State, specifically. They frequently include details about how many applications each local law school is receiving, which is somewhat useful, but I always feel like I’m not getting the full picture because the deans the papers interview only know how many people are applying to their own schools and not the characteristics of the total applicant pool. If applicants are sending out more applications than before (they are), the deans won’t be in a position to tell us, so it’s like commenting on the size of a dust cloud without knowing the amount of dust inside it.

These articles also bring with them factual problems. The authors don’t distinguish between applicants and applications when it’s relevant, how many people are applying part-time or full-time (not that the authors’d know but they don’t ask), and even the number of applicants over the last few cycles for comparison. For instance, the Ohio State Lantern piece opens with, “For years there has been a surge of students applying to law school, but the trend has reversed nationwide, and the Ohio State Moritz College of Law is no exception.” This is the “surge” thanks to LSAC data:

I don’t know what the definition of “surge” is in this context, especially since the Lantern doesn’t comment on what happened in the mid-2000s, but the bump in the late 2000s is only slightly ahead of working-age population growth. Oh, and while we’re here, 2011 was bad for law schools, and according to my dotted-line projection, this fall is going to be really bad.

Here’s a line from the Chicago piece:

“Loyola will have about the same number of applicants this year as it did five years ago, said David Yellen, dean of the law school. There was a huge increase in applications during the recession as undergraduates postponed entering the job market and went to graduate school.”

Again, this only tells us how many people are interested in that one school relative to previous years. No one can tell us how many people applied to at least one law school in Illinois, how many were accepted, and how many applied full- or part-time. Instead, we have to turn to back issues of the Official Guide, which means lots and lots of data entry and gumshoe work … Which I managed to pull off but for full-time applicants only: not all law schools have part-time programs, part-timers tend to be in a different, older demographic that law school watchers don’t seem as interested in analyzing, and I don’t have unlimited time and patience to bang the numbers into a spreadsheet. Here’s the full-time data for Illinois, for those who are curious.

All this tells us is that Illinois’ law schools are accepting more of their applicants; the statewide acceptance rate grew from about 25 percent to 30 percent, and some schools, like Southern Illinois, accept more than half of their full-time applicants. Meanwhile the number of people who showed up—the ultimate gauge of law school interest—remained the same throughout at about 2,000. Ideally, we’d know how many people Illinois law schools rejected, but if the most accommodating law school rejects only 300-450 applicants per year on average in this time period, it would seem that the fluctuations in the applicant pool isn’t that remarkable. This makes relying on deans’ knowledge of applications to their own schools a dubious reporting move.

On the regional level, things look different: The late 2000’s “surge,” at least for full-time applicants, is very much localized along the east coast, particularly in the southeast, e.g. North Carolina.

As 2007 was the applications peak, here is the matriculations comparison between 2007 and 2010:

Much of this is due to the fact that since 2004, the southeast gained seven law schools, including Ave Maria, which moved to Florida from Michigan in 2008. That’s 16 percent growth, much greater than elsewhere. By contrast, places like the Great Lakes really haven’t changed a lot, aside from losing Ave Maria. Cooley’s branch campuses are only for part-timers, I think, so they don’t affect the outcome (one more reason to stick with full-timers).

Too bad the press isn’t interviewing Wake Forest’s dean. It’s missed a good show.

This exercise has left me with a complete dataset on full-time law school applications, acceptances, and matriculations from 2004-2010. Nice. Since higher education institutions of all stripes are often judged by their “applicant yield,” the percentage of admitted applicants who matriculated, I wondered how this compared to their acceptance rates. Previously, I’d thought that the correlation would be clear: the more selective the school the higher the applicant yield. This in fact is not the case, and to my surprise, there are a bunch of law schools in the higher echelons that are not very popular with their applicants. These law schools are scavenging applicants that typically apply to law schools with very highest U.S. News rankings. To test this, I took the average acceptance rate since 2004, along with the average yield, and cut them into quintiles. The following law schools are “Golden,” that is, they have are in the lowest quintile of acceptance rates and the highest in applicant yields, in alphabetical order by state:

  • Arkansas at Little Rock
  • Stanford
  • Yale
  • Hawaii
  • Maryland
  • Harvard
  • New Mexico
  • North Carolina
  • North Carolina Central

Not too many surprises there. Here are the “Indie” law schools, ones that are accommodating yet popular among accepted applicants (highest quintile for acceptances, highest for matriculations):

  • Faulkner
  • Southern Illinois
  • Nebraska
  • Duquesne
  • Pontifical Catholic (Puerto Rico)
  • South Dakota
  • Liberty
  • Regent

Again, few surprises, mostly western state public schools and the last two having a strong Christian bent. Here are the “Marginal” law schools (very accommodating, low yields):

  • Phoenix
  • Golden Gate
  • Florida Coastal
  • Miami
  • New England
  • Western New England
  • Thomas M. Cooley
  • Charlotte
  • Dayton
  • Appalachian

I believe Phoenix, Florida Coastal, and Charlotte are for-profit institutions. And finally, our list of scavengers, the group I find interesting:

  • Southern California
  • American
  • George Washington
  • Georgetown
  • Boston College
  • Cornell
  • Duke
  • Vanderbilt
  • George Mason
  • William and Mary

Three of these are in D.C., and all of them made the top 50 in U.S. News‘ last two rankings. To give you an idea how ferocious competition is among them for the handful of applicants whose LSAT scores are so high you’d think they could levitate objects with their minds, Chicago barely made it off the list.

Here’s what they look like graphed together, plus the remaining T14 law schools.

The one in the upper left is Yale, the lowermost left, Southern California, the three in the upper right are the Puerto Rican law schools, and in the lower right, Cooley (Phoenix is above it). Although the marginal law schools are the ones that face imminent applicant crisis, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the scavengers. There will be far fewer quality applicants this year, so these law schools will either cut their class sizes (whether they announce it or not) or they’ll have to accept mere-mortal applicants and risk reducing their rankings.



  1. This is some great number-playing. I expect that the shrinking of the applicant pool will simply cause a domino effect going downwards. The “scavengers” are going to have their acceptance rates rise (I don’t see the prestigious Vanderbilt class of schools seriously cutting class size), but I don’t see them losing rankings due to no one being able to replace them. When they boost acceptance rates, the next tier down will lose many of their median-plus students. That’s the tier where I think the choice between reducing size and lowering standards becomes real, schools ranked 40-80 who don’t quite have the reputation, but have been playing the rankings game and trying hard to claw their way up. Schools in this group could formerly land their top grads in BigLaw but now have largely been phased out.

    Specifically, it’s going to be most interesting what happens at private schools in that middle range with high applicant pools and large class sizes and already-high acceptance rates. They basically will have to make a choice between cutting class size to try and stay right behind the Vanderbilt class or stay where they’re at and drop to where Golden Gate and NYLS are now. I would target the following as bellweathers of sorts:

    Temple (61st, 300/class, ~30% acceptance, median LSAT 162)
    Chicago-Kent (61st, 300/class, 45% acceptance, median LSAT 159)
    Miami (71st, 475/class, 47% acceptance, median LSAT 158)
    Northeastern (77th, 200/class, 32% acceptance, median LSAT 160)
    Villanova (84th, 250/class, 44% acceptance, median LSAT 161)
    Hofstra (84th, 350/class, 37% acceptance, median LSAT 158)
    Seton Hall (61st, 350/class, 46% acceptance, median LSAT 158)
    Depaul (84th, 300/class, 40% acceptance, median LSAT 159)
    Cincinatti (61st, 150/class, 44% acceptance, median LSAT 160)
    Santa Clara (84th, 325/class, 42% acceptance, median LSAT 160)

    Almost all of these schools have a yield rate of under 20% (numbers are from LSN, for the record). If these schools don’t reduce class sizes, the median LSATs are going to drop to the 154 range, which will cause schools like Drexel or John Marshall to drop to the 149 range. To me, it’s this group that has the toughest choices to make when it comes to cutting class sizes and forgoing the lucre of being closer to Cooley vs. being a higher-ranked, critically-acclaimed, responsible school. For the most part, I don’t see the Vanderbilt class ever becoming like Cooley. It should be a legit concern for Northeastern and Chicago-Kent.

    1. Specifically, it’s going to be most interesting what happens at private schools in that middle range with high applicant pools and large class sizes and already-high acceptance rates.

      Right on the money. Given what the chart shows above, public law schools are generally more favored by applicants than private law schools. They’re cheaper and locally they’re usually more reputable. However, I’m surprised you think the Vanderbilt class won’t cut their class sizes. I think even Northwestern or Chicago recently said it was doing something like that. Given that public law schools tend to be more popular anyway, there is a risk that by accepting weaker applicants over fewer ones they might get leap-frogged by the Wisconsins and Minnesotas. Then again, with smaller classes, it’s harder to cross-subsidize to bribe the strong ones into showing up. We’ll find out when the Official Guide comes out; even this year’s edition should prove useful in predicting the future.

  2. The low-ranked toilets will lower their admission standards and extend deadlines for applicants. Hopefully, the federal government pigs will recognize this and shut off the federally-backed student loan spigot to these dung heaps. (Don’t hold your breath on this action taking place.)

    It will be interesting to see how many accepted law students voluntarily choose to not attend law school at all. Thanks to these blogs and features in major newspapers, law applicants are becoming better informed. However, they are still not “sophisticated consumers” – as Cockroach Melvin Schweitzer wants people to believe.

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