U.S. News (& its loathed rankings)

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.

Law School Matriculant Crunch Coming to an End

That’s the most reasonable analysis one can make of the ABA’s Standard 509 Information Reports, which appeared on the Internet on December 15th.

Before the fun a few preliminaries:

  • Blessedly, the ABA chose to release all the data in spreadsheet form at once, making my life much easier. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
  • However, its GPA and LSAT scores spreadsheet omits a few law schools, includes others it shouldn’t, and throws some curve balls.
  • Excluded: Concordia, Lincoln Memorial, Penn State (Dickinson), Penn State (State College). (Note, as of this fall, the Penn States are two separate law schools, but as far as I’m concerned, its State College school was founded and accredited this year.)
  • Included: University of Dallas (not accredited yet)
  • Curve-balled: Rutgers (as one law school, along with entries for Camden and Newark), Atlanta’s John Marshall (Savannah) (subset of its parent), Cooley-Michigan (subset of all Cooley campuses), and William Mitchell and Hamline are still separate law schools, which might surprise people.

I haven’t parsed all the spreadsheets, but some contain similar bizarreness. Hopefully, no one who has reported on the data already has committed any errors as a result.


In the 2015-16 academic year, there were 32,595 full-time matriculants to 205 ABA-accredited law schools, down 850 matriculants from 2014-15. That year saw a 1,228-matriculant decline, so the crunch is slowing down for the law schools. (These figures exclude the three law school in Puerto Rico, as I usually do.)

Full-time applicant acceptance rates are largely flat, except at the 90th percentile.

Dispersion of Full-Time Law School Applicant Acceptance Rates

Matriculant yields are up slightly as well (omitted), but ultimately about 26 law schools account for half of the decline in matriculants since the last trough year, 2007, which I believe is a better comparison year than 2010, which was a peak year.

Meanwhile, application growth rates are still accelerating.

Dispersion of Full-Time Law School Application Growth Rates

Nearly a quarter of law schools saw a growth in applications. First place goes to Lincoln Memorial (124.1 percent), rising like an undead menace despite the ABA’s initial denials of accreditation. Number two, which I think is fair to report given that Lincoln Memorial was only recently accredited, is Denver at 56.7 percent. I’m not quite sure how it pulled that off.

Last year, I discussed at length how U.S. News‘ top-twentyish law schools saw an unusual bounce in applications. Curiously, that phenomenon has been blunted. Last year the top fourteen received 72,769 applications, but this year they hauled in 66,982—the lowest since 2000, which was back when paper applications were all the rage. I hypothesized that would-be applicants believed that no one was applying to elite law schools, so their applications would succeed. Maybe that was right, maybe not, but regardless, I’m stumped as to why the application decline resumed for these schools.

Consequently, I haven’t seen any real surprises from the application data yet, but there’s more stuff to comb through, so stay tuned.

13 Law Schools Didn’t Report 2014 Graduate Debt to U.S. News, Again

[UPDATE: Seton Hall’s average graduate debt datum is now accounted for in this post, lowering the number of non-reporting law schools to 13 this year. Without altering the substantive points of the post, please consider the necessary changes having been made.]

The record was 14 last year, which was still too high.

Each year U.S. News ranks law schools based on how much debt their graduates take on. The figure excludes accrued interest, but it’s probably the best estimate of the cost of attendance at a particular law school. It’s also, unfortunately, the only source for this information as the ABA does not publicize it in the 509 Information Reports. Here’s this year’s list of absentees and their debt levels in their last reported year:

  • Arizona Summit – $190,471 (2015, can be found on the school’s Web site [Interestingly, no one took out private loans…])
  • New England – $132,246 (2014)
  • Seton Hall – $127,075 (2014)
  • Faulkner – $122,187 (2014)
  • Missouri (Kansas City) – $103,038 (2014)
  • Southern Illinois – $67,966 (2014)
  • Appalachian – $114,740 (2013)
  • Atlanta’s John Marshall – $142,515 (2013)
  • Florida A&M – $96,934 (2012)
  • La Verne – $112,628 (2013)
  • Rutgers-Camden – $93,990 (2013)
  • Southwestern – $147,976 (2013)
  • Texas Southern – $99,992 (2013)
  • WMU Cooley – $122,395 (2013)

I’m excluding the three Puerto Rico law schools and Widener Harrisburg because U.S. News usually does too. In point of fact, Belmont had 119 graduates last year, so it probably should have been included as well, but I’ll be lenient today. I’d hate to see the record broken.

These schools account for 3,361 3,076 graduates out of 43,118 (excl. Puerto Rico), or 8 7 percent of the total.

The unweighted average private law school graduate debt rose from $124,638 last year to $127,740 127,743 this year (2.4% 2.5%). For public law schools: $88,287 in 2013 to $89,471 in 2014 (1.3%). I haven’t QC-ed this year’s figures, but I’m confident they’re right.

Other amusing facts:

  • Kudos to Barry and District of Columbia for correctly reporting their graduates’ debt levels this year. In 2014, both schools reported what must have been their graduates’ debt for their final year.
  • I’m curious why some schools saw large leaps in debt, e.g. South Dakota (45%), Arkansas (Little Rock) (33%), Baylor (30%), Elon (22%), and Pace (20%). It doesn’t appear they blatantly misreported last year, but these are odd fluctuations, particularly given that some of these schools saw 15% drops in debt disbursed last year.
  • Big ol’ raspberry to Howard for reporting what must be its graduates’ final year of debt: $24,021. Last year, it reported $123,485.
  • Although the ABA hasn’t “acquiesced” yet, it’s nice to see Hamline’s numbers reported. I expected them to not appear.

That is all.

On The American Lawyer: Applying to Top Law Schools Disserved Many in 2014

Applying to Top Law Schools Disserved Many in 2014.”

It really is one of the most unusual things I’ve seen in my few years writing on legal education. Like, where did these applicants get it into their heads that U.S. News‘ darlings were desperate? Hope they did well though.

The U.S. News Law School Rankings Lorenz Curve

Following up on my post on the upswing in applications to U.S. News‘ top 20 law schools this year, I took a look at the percentage of full-time applications that are sent to the T-14: It’s ranged between 16-21 percent since 1999, which is quite disproportionate. It occurred to me that one could try to illustrate the distribution of applications by modifying the Lorenz curve with the U.S. News rankings.

Usually, a Lorenz curve measures the distribution of a phenomenon, like income, by arranging the cumulative proportion of households by the cumulative amount of their incomes. The more income (or wealth, or ice cream sandwiches, or whatever) some households have, the sharper the curve is at the far end of the distribution. The closer the curve is to a triangle, the more equal the distribution is. By taking the negative area between the curve and where the hypotenuse of the triangle is, and then dividing it by the total area of the triangle, one can determine the Gini coefficient, which you always read about but have no idea what it means.

I crafted a Lorenz curve for full-time law school applications for the 2009 to 2014 cycles using the previous year’s rankings, assuming that that’s what influences applicants. So for example applications for fall 2014 used the rankings released back in early 2013. I then sorted the percentages by ranking and then the highest percentages for ties.


Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

(If it wasn’t clear, the Gini coefficient is just area “A” divided by areas “A+B”.)

Although most of the reporting about law school applications has been about the declining total, this is the first look I know of at the shifts in the distribution. The important points that jump out are:

(a) “Application inequality” has grown quite noticeably in the last two years in favor of higher-ranked law schools. (Don’t expect any Occupiers or Elizabeth Warren to care.) Between 2012 and 2014, the top 20 captured an additional 6.1 percentage points.

(b) The rank-not-published/unranked/erstwhile tier 4 law schools have usually received about 15 percent of all applications over the last five years. They’ve lost about 2.2 percent of the total in the last two years.

(c) The top 50 law schools, whatever they were, have gone from getting 45 percent of all applications to half. That’s right, about half of all full-time applications go to just 50 law schools.

(d) It’s not shown, but for-profit law schools have never drawn more than 3.25 percent of all full-time applications. They’ve fallen to 2.52 percent in 2014. Freestanding private law schools’ share has dropped as well, but that’s largely because some of those schools are now affiliated with larger universities.

(e) You probably figured this out already, but the number one law school by application share is Georgetown, which is the safety school for the stars.

(f) The full-time law school applications Gini coefficient has risen from about 0.37 until 2012 to 0.42 this year. This is close to household income inequality in the U.S.

I didn’t expect the distribution would be so unequal, so I guess I’ve learned something from this exercise. Hopefully you did too.

Law School Cuts Its Tuition to Zero (and Other 509 Report Errata)

Students at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School were surprised to find their tuition was free for the 2014-15 academic year.

Free Tuition!

Such generosity!

That’s the most amusing error in the law school 509 Information Reports I’ve found thus far. The ABA doesn’t audit the data law schools provide it, so people using them might want to know when it’s obviously incorrect. I’m tallying up the ones I find, but I won’t do so exhaustively. I figure the ABA just runs a program that spits all the data into the reports automatically, so I’ll confine my teasing to the schools for the mistakes.

Atlanta’s John Marshall is one of two law schools that have tuition problems. For those curious, looking on John Marshall’s Web site I get $38,100 in tuition costs, $198 technology fees, $1,340 for health insurance, and $194 in student bar association costs ($39,832 total). This is largely consistent with its charges last year ($39,578).

Another law school with a tuition typo is St. Mary’s, whose 509 report says it charges $33,100 for resident and $33,110 for non-residents, a patent ambiguity that doesn’t make sense for a private law school. Worse, when I look at its Web site, I get $33,010 ($32,340 for tuition, $670 for fees). That’s the number I’m going to go with.

Readers might also be curious about law schools’ enrollment breakdowns. I don’t track the ethnicities of full-time and part-time students, but I did do get their totals as well as the genders and ethnicities of 1Ls, total enrollments, and graduates. These numbers usually add up across the table, but there are a few cases that I’ve found that don’t.

The biggest offender is SUNY-Buffalo, which accidentally totaled its male and female students in its “Other” column (a new addition to the reports this year) instead of the “Total” column. This causes significant arithmetical errors that end up doubling the school’s enrollment over the year before. I have SUNY-Buffalo with 547 full-time students, 10 part-time students, and zero “other” students.

The tables for San Francisco and Minnesota also do not total properly due to problems in the “Other” column. As I have it, San Francisco has 425 full-time students, 102 part-time students, and no “other” students (by enrollment, not gender). Minnesota has 681 full-time students, 17 part-time students, and zero “other” students (ditto).

It’s unclear, but I think most law schools that used the “other” category meant it for gender and enrollment status while these schools had one category but not the other.

Hopefully these errors will be corrected either by the law schools or the ABA.


While I have your attention, I thought I’d spill the beans on where undiscounted tuition costs went this year: pretty much nowhere. The median private law school charged about $200 more than last year in real dollars, but costs are moving up slightly on the very high end while nominal tuition cuts are manifesting at the low end of the scale. I can’t make a clear determination at this point, but anyone thinking that legal education is moving toward a two-tier market—one for cheaper law schools, the other for very expensive prestigious ones—might see this as year 1 for their hypothesis.

Full-Time Law School Tuition Dispersion (Excl. P.R., Constant $)

I suppose now’s the appropriate time to congratulate Columbia for being the first law school to breach the $60,000 mark. 23 others charge more than $50,000 annually, many of them are in U.S. News‘ top 20. In 2010, only three charged so much.

The next chart shows the overall slowdown of tuition cost growth over the last few years and the nominal declines within the lowest quintile.

Full-Time Private Law School Tuition Increases by Tuition Quintile Mean (Current $)

I haven’t done a full analysis yet, but I think only Iowa has seen any direct correlation between nominal cost cuts and an increase in applications (and that’s a public law school). The rest still saw declines.

Peace out.

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.