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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Update On 2018 Applicant Pool: Growth In Matriculants Likely Will Be Unbalanced Across Law Schools

Applicant Pool Appears to be Roughly 60,500-61,000  

In December 2017 and in February 2018, I posted blogs with projections for the 2018 application cycle based on the initial Current Volume Reports from the LSAC from early December and early February.  At that point I estimated an applicant pool of roughly 61,000.  I am writing now to update the applicant pool data and provide some further analysis regarding the composition of the applicant pool.

As of August 6, 2018, LSAC was reporting 60,679 applicants, up from 56,131 at this time last year – an increase of 4,548 or roughly 8.1%. This is the largest applicant volume since the 2011-2012 admissions cycle, which saw a total applicant pool of roughly 67,900.  Given that the final applicant count for 2017 ended at 56,400, one might expect the final applicant count for 2018 to edge up closer to 61,000. 

Fall 2018 First-Year Class May Be 40,000-41,000

If the number of applicants ends up at 60,800 and the percentage of applicants who become matriculants remains around 66% to 67% for the current admissions cycle (roughly the average over the last several years as shown in Table 1, below), the entering class in fall 2018 would be between 40,100 first-year students and 40,700 first-year students (up perhaps more than 8% from the 37,400 in fall 2017).  Given the strength of the applicant pool (discussed below) I think there is reason to believe the entering class will be closer to the high end of that range than the low end of that range.

Improvement in Strength of Applicant Pool

As I noted in my earlier posts, the most significant aspect of the applicant pool in this cycle is the tremendous increase in applicants with a high LSAT of 165 or higher.  From 2010 to 2017, while the overall applicant volume declined from roughly 87,900 to roughly 56,000, the “composition” of the entering class profile also shifted.  During this period, the percentage of applicants and matriculants with a high LSAT of 165 or higher declined, with the percentage of such applicants dropping from roughly 14% to less than 12%, and the percentage of matriculants dropping from just over 18% to just over 15%.

TABLE 1 -- Percentage of Applicants and Matriculants with a High

LSAT Score of 165 or Higher from 2010-2017 Based on National Decision Profile Data

Admis. Cycle

Total Apps.

Apps. at 165 and Higher

% of Apps. at 165 or Higher

Total Matrics

Matrics as % of Apps.

Matrics at 165 and Higher

Matrics at 165 or Higher as % of Apps. at 165 or Higher

% of Matrics

at 165 or Higher

2009-10

87900

12177

13.9%

52500

59.7%

9477

77.8%

18.1%

2010-11

78500

11190

14.3%

48700

62%

8952

80%

18.4%

2011-12

67900

9226

13.6%

44500

65.5%

7571

82%

17%

2012-13

59400

7532

12.7%

39700

66.8%

6054

80.4%

15.2%

2013-14

55700

7577

13.6%

37900

68%

6189

81.7%

16.3%

2014-15

54500

6667

12.2%

37100

68.1%

5505

82.6%

14.8%

2015-16*

56500

7240

12.8%

37100

65.7%

5780

79.8%

15.5%

2016-17

56200

6546

11.6%

37400

66.5%

5688

86.9%

15.2%

*Please note that starting with the 2015-16 Admissions Cycle, LSAC started reporting full-year applicant volume and corresponding statistics rather than reporting merely fall applicant volume and corresponding statistics. (H/T Paul Campos)

The Current Volume Summary for this cycle continues to show a significant increase in the number of applicants with a high LSAT of 165 or higher compared to the five most recent admission cycles with 8,194 applicants with a high LSAT of 165 or higher (1,648 more this year compared to the 2016-17 admissions cycle (an increase of roughly 25%)).

In the last few years, an average of roughly 82% to 83% of the applicants with a high LSAT of 165 or higher turned into matriculants.  If this cycle tracks with a similar percentage, the number of matriculants with a high LSAT of 165 or higher will increase to roughly 6,750 (over 1,000 more this year compared to the 2016-17 admissions cycle (an increase of over 18%)).

If the number of matriculants with a high LSAT of 165 or higher is roughly 6,750 and if the Fall 2018 first-year entering class comes in at roughly 40,100-40,700 (as noted above), then the percentage of matriculants with a high LSAT of 165 or higher will rebound to nearly 17%, the highest percentage in five years.

Of course, there is a possibility that the percentage of applicants with high LSATs of 165 or higher turning into matriculants could be higher or lower than the recent average of 82%-83%.  My sense is that the larger pool of applicants with high LSATs of 165 or higher portends a slightly higher rate of matriculation as well.  (For the 2017 cycle the rate of matriculation had already increased to 86.9%.)  That could mean even more than 6,750 new first-year students with a high LSAT of 165 or higher.

Not All Law Schools Will See Increased First-Year Enrollment

So can all law schools expect to see an 8% growth in first-year enrollment this fall?  I think the answer is likely to be no – the enrollment bump likely will be concentrated at the top of the USNews rankings with ripples impacting lower-ranked schools on a more sporadic basis.

Between 2010 and 2017, the law schools ranked in the top-50 in the USNews saw a decline in first-year enrollment of roughly 16%, from nearly 14,000 to less than 12,000, with many law schools seeing a modest decline in profile in addition to a modest to significant loss of revenue.  The large decrease in the number of applicants with high LSATs of 165 or higher meant that many of these law schools, if they wanted to minimize declines in profile, had to take fewer students while nonetheless reaching deeper into the applicant pool to fill their classes.

This admissions cycle reflects the first time since 2010 that law schools at the top of the rankings can grow their first-year enrollment without eroding their entering class profile (and perhaps while enhancing their entering class profile).  Given that many of these top-50 law schools have lost significant revenue over the last several years, I anticipate they will take this opportunity to grow their entering classes and begin to recoup some of the lost revenue.  Thus, I think it is likely that half or more of the growth in first-year enrollment (1,500 to 1,600 matriculants) could be in the top-50 law schools.  (Remember that for every student above a law school’s LSAT median, that law school also can welcome another student below the LSAT median without eroding its profile.)   I am anticipating average first-year enrollment growth among top-50 law schools possibly to be as high as 11%-12%.  (Anecdotal reports from several sources are indicating that many of these law schools are experiencing a higher yield this cycle than in recent years.)

By filling their classes with more students with high LSATs of 165 or higher, with some supplementation by students with LSATs of less than 165 (there are 1,000 more applicants this year than last year with a high LSAT of 160-164 and 1100 more applicants this year than last year with a high LSAT of 150-159), the top-50 law schools still will be leaving more students in the pool with LSATs in the 150s than have been available in prior years.  Thus, as one moves down the rankings, a number of other law schools also will see improved first-year enrollment numbers and/or improved profiles.  Which lower-ranked schools will see such first-year enrollment growth is very hard to predict, however.  On average, I anticipate average first-year enrollment growth among the bottom 150 law schools to be in the neighborhood of 4%-5%, with several law schools flat or even seeing declines in first-year enrollment, and with other law schools seeing first-year enrollment growth of as much as 10% or more. 

Actual enrollment numbers for any given law school will largely be a function of the local or regional market (whether a given state or region saw a significant increase in applicants) and the extent to which a given law school continued to provide generous scholarships to incoming students or perhaps cut back on scholarships.  If a law school misjudged where the competitive market for scholarships was among its peer institutions or regional competitors, it might have seen an unusually high yield or an unusually low yield.  (The increase in applicants, particularly at the high end of the LSAT distribution, likely has meant that models for admission and scholarships developed over the last few years when the applicant pool had stabilized around 55,000 to 56,000 with far fewer applicants with high LSATs of 165 or higher were not as helpful this cycle.)

Enrollment Increases while Employment Decreases

NALP just reported its employment results for the Class of 2017, showing an increase in both the number and percentage of graduates employed in full-time, long-term bar passage required positions.  The number increased modestly from 23,136 to 23,368, while the percentage increased from 64.6% to 68.8% of those graduates whose employment status was known.  (The larger increase in the percentage was due to a smaller class of graduates.)  The number of graduates in full-time, long-term bar passage required positions, however, is down nearly 11% from the Class of 2014, when 26,238 graduates had full-time, long-term bar passage required positions.

Thus, one well might ask whether, in light of a post-graduate employment market that has shrunk over the last few years, this is a good time to increase first-year enrollment across American law schools by 8% or more?  I think it is fair to say that most law schools historically have not factored the availability of meaningful law-related jobs three years hence into their analytical models for how many first-year students to admit and matriculate.  While the increased transparency regarding employment outcomes has brought much more attention to this issue of “jobs” for law schools, law graduates, law students and prospective law students, that does not mean that law schools have made decisions to “right-size” their admissions process to correspond to the expected number of meaningful law jobs that are anticipated to be available when the incoming first-years graduate three years from now.

Phrased differently, if the predictions set forth above are accurate, then three years from now, law schools likely will be graduating roughly 37,000 students (out of 40,000 plus that might comprise the first-year class this fall), rather than the roughly 35,000 in the Class of 2017 (out of nearly 38,000 who entered law school as first-years in fall 2014).  But the data from NALP do not suggest that these 2,000 additional law school graduates are likely to find 2,000 additional meaningful law jobs waiting for them.   That said, the stronger entering class profile for this fall's entering class could suggest improved bar passage numbers for the July 2021 bar exam, which could mean that more 2021 graduates will be eligible for and will obtain bar passage required positions.  (For 2017, there were only 25,802 people who were identified as first-time takers from ABA-accredited law schools who passed the July bar exam -- so the 23,368 graduates in full-time, long-term bar passage required positions represented 90.6% of those seemingly eligible for such positions -- the highest percentage in several years.)   But, if the number of full-time, long-term bar passage required positions remains around 23,000-23.500, there well may be an increased number of law graduates in the Class of 2021 disappointed by the lack of meaningful law jobs available to them following their graduation.   It will be very interesting to see how things play out for the Class of 2021.

http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2018/08/update-on-2018-applicant-pool-growth-in-matriculants-likely-will-be-unbalanced-across-law-schools.html

Jerry Organ, Legal Education | Permalink

Comments

I don't think this applicant bump will provide the respite many law schools think it will. I think the increase in numbers will be mostly offset by the increase in scholarships dolled out to these more highly qualified candidates. As this article suggests, this year will be marginally better for some of the top schools, and likely the same or worse for the majority. The latter schools also continue to face a bar passage crises that so far has not fully come home to roost.

Posted by: JM | Aug 8, 2018 7:04:02 AM

One wonders what the actual graduation numbers will look like if Congress passes the PROSPER Act, which would slash federal graduate student loans to $28,500/year. FAR less than the going tuition & living expenses at most law schools.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Aug 8, 2018 10:41:07 AM

Why would Congress slash student loan programs that generate revenue for the government? More nonsense from someone who does not understand economics.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 8, 2018 12:28:32 PM

Sigh,

Anon, I've given you the name of the act, which has been in the works for more than a year now. Maybe point your little mouse at Google and learn about it? There's plenty of coverage of it over on the Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education, though I suspect you may harbor an animus towards the later site...

And if you were at all conversant in student lending policy, you would know there is a longstanding debate as to whether the federal lending program is profitable or not, as it hinges on what accounting model the GAO uses (under fair value cost accounting it loses ungodly amounts of money) and how IBR plans and forgiveness will be factored.


Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Aug 9, 2018 10:07:31 AM

For the other readers, the most recent projections under fair value accounting show that federal student loans originated between 2015 and 2024 will cost the federal government $80 billion.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Aug 9, 2018 1:57:42 PM

Also I can't help but notice that these projections have a 66.5% matriculation rate, and since of course no institution has a 100% yield, the percentage of applicants who are accepted is going to be somewhere above 66.5%.

Well, the average acceptance rate across the nation's thousands of four-year colleges is 65.1%. So let's keep things in perspective: law schools still have higher acceptance rates than four-year colleges, which isn't exactly a sign of a booming market for applicants. Heck, Harvard's law school acceptance rate is just under three times higher than their undergrad, 15.1% versus 5.6%. Just food for thought.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Aug 9, 2018 2:06:11 PM

Also I can't help but notice that these projections have a 66.5% matriculation rate, and since of course no institution has a 100% yield, the percentage of applicants who are accepted is going to be somewhere above 66.5%.

Well, the average acceptance rate across the nation's thousands of four-year colleges is 65.1%. So let's keep things in perspective: law schools still have higher acceptance rates than four-year colleges, which isn't exactly a sign of a booming market for applicants. Heck, Harvard's law school acceptance rate is just under three times higher than their undergrad, 15.1% versus 5.6%. Just food for thought.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Aug 9, 2018 2:06:11 PM