Law School Deans, Law Schools, LSAT, Money, Rankings

A Law School Dean’s Painful Decision

In this age of plummeting law school applications, many deans must make difficult choices. They must sacrifice one of two things they love dearly: tuition dollars or their U.S. News ranking. It’s the legal academy’s version of Sophie’s Choice.

As fewer people apply to law school, deans have basically two options: they can shrink the size of the entering class, which reduces tuition revenue, or they can keep the size of the entering class the same, which results in credential dilution — a student body with lower LSAT scores and GPAs. Credential dilution can lead to a tumble in the closely watched U.S. News rankings, which can further reduce applications, setting in motion a vicious cycle.

So far, most schools seem to have opted for shrinkage. Most deans would prefer to be able to claim that they are taking a “stand for quality,” as Dean Patrick Hobbs of Seton Hall recently stated.

(Yes, we recently covered one exception. But to paraphrase Chinatown, “Forget it, Jake — it’s Cooley.”)

Interestingly enough, however, one top law school seems to be going in the other direction. It’s actually increasing the size of its incoming class over last year, even if doing so might lead to credential dilution….

The school in question is George Washington University Law School. It’s a well-ranked school, #21 in the latest U.S. News rankings and #31 in the inaugural Above the Law rankings.

But could those rankings fall in the future? Here’s what GW Law just did, as reported in the Hatchet (via Morning Docket):

The number of students who entered the GW Law School this fall swelled by about 22 percent, bouncing back after a massive decline and amid free-falling enrollment nationwide.

A total of 484 students entered the school this fall, including about 80 more full-time students than last year, according to the school’s preliminary data. That increase – a surprising turnaround amid shrinking law school classes nationwide – is a positive sign for the No. 21-ranked school that saw application numbers plummet in the same year it lost its dean.

Still, because the law school hasn’t released the incoming class’ LSAT scores or GPA, or the total number of applications the school received last year, it’s unclear if the school changed its admissions standards to attract a bigger class.

Interim Dean Gregory E. Maggs

Ding ding ding. That is the $64,000 — or, to use GW’s official cost of attendance, the $77,610 — question.

We don’t know if or how much GW’s admissions standards changed, and we won’t get this information until later in the year, when the school will release its data to the ABA. The law school declined to provide these statistics to the media.

But given the double-digit decrease in both applicants and applications in the latest cycle, I’d be very surprised if GW was able to maintain its high LSAT and GPA numbers and increase its class size by 80 students. If it did accomplish such a feat, then interim dean Gregory Maggs is a magician as well as a mensch.

Reading between the lines of the law school’s comments to the Hatchet, it seems highly unlikely that both the LSAT and GPA figures were maintained:

Rich Collins, the associate vice president for law development, said the school considered GPA more than it has in the past, while lowering its LSAT score standards. He also pointed to the phenomenon that fewer applicants with high LSAT scores are applying to law schools, and said GW was also more aggressive with financial aid offers to attract students.

Indeed. I have a friend who received a sizable but “exploding” scholarship offer from GW. He was given more than 24 hours to accept it, but not that much more. (He declined it in the end.)

Collins said Maggs stressed the need for a larger class “to make the place run.” A smaller first-year class strains law schools’ finances with less cash from tuition, which was hiked up by 4.8 percent this year.

“We’re not the kind of place where you go on a diet and decide you’re a size two when you’ve been a size eight,” he said.

Kudos to Dean Maggs for his candor. Tuition dollars are needed “to make the place run”; money makes the law school world go round. As for the 5 percent tuition increase, that’s no big deal; the American taxpayer is good for it.

The diet analogy isn’t bad either. During the long boom period for the legal profession, law schools got fat. Is it fair to force them to act like thin people overnight? There’s no gastric bypass available for law schools. Let them get thinner gradually, in a way that will minimize disruption in the lives of faculty, staff, and their families. That seems sensible.

Or at least more reasonable than this argument in defense of the enrollment increase:

“Last year was the unusual year. We have just returned to the class size we have had for years before last year and the class size for which we are budgeted,” law professor Richard Pierce said in an email.

Professor Pierce may be used to having people jump when he barks, but going back to a big entering class size because that’s how it used to be and that’s how it’s budgeted seems like wishful thinking.

But look — I’m not a law school dean, I have no special expertise in running a law school, and I was not privy to all of the data and factors that GW considered before coming to its decision. Perhaps this decision will turn out to be a great one for GW.

Remember, we don’t know yet whether GW ended up having to take a hit on its incoming students’ credentials. Maybe it didn’t, or maybe the hit was minor, or maybe the hit was small enough to not change GW’s ranking vis-à-vis other schools. Maybe sometimes it’s possible to have your cake and eat it too.

Law school enrollment surges amid national decrease [GW Hatchet via Morning Docket]

Earlier: Law School Applications Plummet
Controversy Continues at a Leading Law School Over Allegations of Racial Bias

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