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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Barnhizer: Law School Enrollments and Adaptive Strategies

David Barnhizer (Cleveland State), Law School Enrollments and Adaptive Strategies:

There is no “national” or “global” law school enrollment crisis but a serious enrollment decline being experienced by a large number of law schools that requires adaptive strategies. Those strategies are not general but need to be designed and applied within a realistic understanding of the specific competitive marketplaces within which individual law schools are operating. In some cases not all obstacles can be overcome or problems fixed within a relevant timeframe. It is likely that some law schools will be forced to close their doors. And it is difficult to argue against that outcome in a number of instances. As with any set of competitive industries there are winners and losers predicated on factors such as product quality, prestige, consumer demand for the products being sold, location, cost versus benefit anticipated from the expenditure, and convenience. These factors apply to the competitive conditions of US law schools. Simply put, there are two primary considerations in play as to the success or failure of US law schools. One is applicant perception of the law schools to which they choose to apply in terms of whether those law schools represent the a “product” they want to “buy” based on quality, cost and career benefits. The other is the employers’ perception of their benefit from hiring a producer law school’s “product” in the form of a law school graduate.

In saying that there is no national law school enrollment crisis I offer data on the 2012 and 2013 enrollments at 23 nationally ranked “elite” law schools said to be in the top thirty or so of US law schools. Rather than declining we see that overall those 23 law schools experienced an increase of 79 law students. Several of the “elite” law schools experienced a limited negative enrollment while a few had substantial positive gains but it is clear that these law schools are not in trouble. Law schools that are experiencing significant impacts in the form of declining enrollments are the ones facing substantial pressures. Part of the data presented here indicates that by far the largest part of the decline in enrollments are taking place in law schools in the lowest end of the US News & World Report rankings—those listed as “Ranking Not Published” or RNP.

While there are several aberrations where higher ranked schools have experienced significant declines there is no question that the “RNPs” and other low-ranked law schools are the “losers” in the competition for a declining total applicant base. The factors affecting their competitive conditions run a diverse range. These include lack of prestige, restriction to local employment markets, saturated employment markets, geographic location, tuition levels that are seen as significantly exceeding the benefits obtained from attending the institution, and competition from more highly ranked law schools. At the end of the presentation of information twenty-seven ideas are offered for approaches that could be further defined and applied to the needs and conditions of specific law schools. I deliberately avoided adding detail to the suggestions because I believe each represents a strategy or a tactic that needs to be individualized to fit the mission, conditions, possibilities, resources and agendas of specific institutions.

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The author should probably have looked beyond one year's drop. Take Wake Forest, for example. He puts them at an elite school that increased enrollment from 2012 to 2013 -- but that was largely because they had an unusually small class in 2012. There are a lot of other examples along those lines.

Posted by: Kirt | May 14, 2014 6:17:06 AM

I agree with the comment about a longer time frame, but I was simply extracting from a "snapshot" and "brainstorming" for purposes of discussion and overall analysis. Certainly one thing that leaps out, however, independent of isolated exceptions, is that of the RNPs extremely poor enrollment performance and the fact that although the US News rankings have been unfair and devastating for many law schools they are the driving force for schools in the top Tier generally holding their own. Or at that level it may simply be "chicken or egg" at play because the US News system essentially guarantees a largely rigid hierarchy with some minimal movement. An intriguing thing that I would be happy to see considered is whether with all the angst about US News ranks, once you get above 50th place the score really doesn't seem to buffer a school against a decline. 60th through 100th place, for example is a guarantee of nothing. This means "location, location, location" and the competitive dynamics of specific law school contexts take on great importance and that those are the variables that we may be able to manipulate strategically for survival and success.

Posted by: David | May 14, 2014 8:49:38 AM

I agree with Kirt that the one-year snapshot can be misleading. For example, I would guess that some of the schools that had significant increases in enrollment also had Deanship changes that year. Given that the Dean is likely to be in charge of figuring out enrollment targets, different Deans may have different views of where the enrollment targets should be.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 14, 2014 9:21:15 PM