The End Is Near for Many Law Schools

…The end, that is, of the matriculant crunch that blights them.

(What, you thought I was going to predict widespread school closings? Haha, no.)

The accelerated (sure surprised me) release of law schools’ Standard 509 Information Reports, aka/fka the Official Guide, allows us to peer into the world of law schools as they are this very semester. Like, you can see them delaying their finals on account of grand jury verdicts … in real time.

No. The first finding is that there were 33,426 full-time law school matriculants this fall, down a paltry 1,247 from 2013. Last year, the drop was 2,621, hence this post’s title. (These figures exclude the three Puerto Rico law schools, which applies throughout this post.) I’d like to take this time to apologize for teasing you on Wednesday with one law school’s 90 percent full-time matriculant decline since 2004.

Part of the matriculant stabilization might be attributable to a slight uptick in acceptance rates.

Dispersion of Full-Time Law School Applicant Acceptance Rates

Click to enlarge

Emphasis on the “might,” for it’s a very slight change in the trend, unlike 2013, but it does correspond to a similar budge in matriculant yields (omitted).

In general, though, the distribution of the matriculant collapse since the last trough years (1999 and 2007) is about the same as last year. I shan’t display that analysis now, but it’s still true that about 10 percent of the law schools account for half the total decline since 2007, which is probably the best comparison and not 2010, which was a peak year.

As for the number of full-time applications, you can see the accelerators are being hit at all levels:

Dispersion of Full-Time Law School Application Growth Rates

This year, about 20 percent of law schools saw a growth in applications. First place goes to Case Western, which rallied from 1,200 applications last year to 1,913 this year, leading to a 46 percent increase in matriculants. Iowa saw a similar growth in its incoming class size after its application count nearly doubled. Penn State also saw some growth. I’ll have to look into the role that nominal tuition cuts play, but maybe they’re more successful than I thought. I just don’t think anyone should expect them to cause a Black Friday rampage by new applicants.

Nevertheless, probably the most interesting story this year is the surge in applications at most of the members of U.S. News and World Report‘s 14 highest-ranked law schools—as well as four of the remaining six of the top twenty. It’s really remarkable. Fourteen of these twenty schools contributed 1.39 percent against the -7.56 percent application growth rate. (Those stats are additive.)

The phenomenon is fascinating because it demonstrates that applicants interpreted a message (from somewhere) as saying that reputable law schools are worth applying to while most of the rest are not. More than even the law school tipping point between late 2009 and early 2010, I can’t recall ever seeing evidence of such discrete thinking on the part of applicants.

An admitted weakness with the LSTB is that it’s not as good at measuring inputs as outcomes, so I can’t tell you whether this behavior is due to a particular article on a news Web site, advice from guidance counselors or others, or some kind of forum. It might be multiple concurrent causes. Regardless, the now-is-the-best-time-to-apply-to-law-school-ever crowd might be able to take credit for directly influencing potential law school applicants’ actions, though I read their advice as telling people that it was also okay to be the number one pick at a respected non-elite institution. Thus, it might not be those writers. Possibly, the applicants, whom I’ll call “surplus applicants,” interpreted those messages more conservatively than their authors intended.

But was “apply to only elite law schools” a successful strategy? My first cut says that it was a waste of time for many surplus applicants because highly ranked law schools are not desperate for applicants with good credentials.

Here’s a table of surplus full-time applications, offers, and matriculations between 2013 and 2014 at the 14 out of 20 U.S. News‘ top law schools that saw application increases.

2014 T20 Surplus Applications Table

Click to enlarge

The odds of getting into one of these schools as a surplus applicant are not as good as the typical applicant was last year, assuming these schools used the same acceptance strategy this year. Only 12 percent of the total were accepted, but the ratio of surplus applications to surplus matriculants is 28, which is much higher than the ratio for all top 20 law schools in 2013 (16-17). Consequently, we can infer that many surplus applicants were rejected.

Of course without the now-is-the-best-time-to-apply-to-law-school-ever message, presumably the number of applications at these schools would have continued to fall or not fall by as much, so it depends on where you think the baseline for the first surplus applicant should be set. Anyway, more research might illuminate the issue, but the pushback in favor of law school appears to have gotten all the benefits it can. Prestigious law schools just aren’t changing their behaviors.

I should also note that some of these schools, such as Georgetown and Columbia, scorned their applicants as they came out of the woodwork. One strategy that might be developing, or, rather, receiving more scrutiny, is prestigious law schools rejecting many applications while accepting transfers instead. If you take a look at Georgetown’s 509 report, you can see that the 113 tranfers it took in (about 6 percent of its 2014 enrollment) came from dozens of schools. The list of origin schools goes on for a page and a half! As growth (decline) in applicants becomes less relevant, focusing on distribution will. My cursory look into the matter has found that some schools have a taste for for-profit law school refugees, e.g. Arizona State from Arizona Summit.

Other oddities I noticed: One, not all highly ranked law schools did so well. UVRollingStonebotchedrApereporting lost 815 full-time applications, and Minnesota lost 751. I could be convinced that these are typos in their thousand digits, but if not it’s peculiar that these two highly regarded schools would contribute -0.4 percent to the -7.6 percent full-time applications decline while their peers did so much better. Two, the University of Chicago found the 20 or so full-time law professors it misplaced last year. Congrats, and let that be a lesson to other law schools that misreport their numbers to the ABA.

So far the 2014-15 academic year has shaped up to be more interesting than I thought it would be. More research on other issues will appear here in time.

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