Full-Time Law-School Application Inequality Unchanged in 2015

Last year, I modified the Lorenz curve to measure the distribution of full-time law-school applications. A Lorenz curve measures the cumulative distribution of a quantity in order from the smallest recipient to the largest. Usually it’s the distribution of income among households. I’ve modified the Lorenz curve according to the U.S. News and World Report rankings for the previous year because the rankings are an independent measurement of law-school eliteness as seen by LSAT takers and applicants at the time that they apply.

The Lorenz curve can also be used to calculate the Gini coefficient, which is the area under the Lorenz curve divided by the total area of the right triangle representing a totally equal distribution of the quantity among the recipients.

I found last year that full-time application inequality had risen noticeably between 2009 and 2014. The Gini coefficient had shifted from 0.37 to 0.42, and the top 50 law schools captured half of all full-time applications—up about 5 percentage points from 2009. Finally, freestanding private law schools, and even among them for-profit law schools, lost only a small share of applications.

Repeating the analysis for 2015, the application distribution appears essentially unchanged.

Full-Time Law-School Applications (Adjusted) Lorenz Curve

If you can’t distinguish the 2015 Lorenz curve from the 2014 curve, that’s a feature, not a bug. The Gini coefficient rose from 0.427 to 0.429. Additionally, any shift in applications in favor of lower-ranked law schools, namely the 51-100s, is due in part to volatility and ties within the rankings. In fact, holding the rankings constant, law schools ranked 51-100 in 2014 saw only a 1 percent gain in application share in 2015, but the top 50 were largely unchanged.

I predicted interest in law school to become more unequal this year, but surprisingly it didn’t. Instead, there was a trivial shift in applications toward lower-ranked schools. Consequently, although the number of full-time applications fell 4.2 percent in 2015, the overall impact was felt proportionately among law schools. Notably, U.S. News‘ static top-14 law schools accounted for 40 percent of the total decline in full-time applications—in contrast to its ten percent gain against the application decline last year.

I interpret all this as mildly good news for law schools: Interest in legal education still fell, but the perception that non-elite law schools offer little to applicants appears to have softened. However, that might be little comfort to law schools whose budgets are deep in the red.


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