BY RYAN BYRNES
The following article will appear in the March edition of “The Cross Examiner.”
As we approach mid-March and applications continue to arrive at law school admission departments around the country, one message appears to be increasingly apparent to those deciding whether a legal education is a sound investment:
The total number of individuals applying to American Bar Association-approved schools dropped 16.7 percent from a year ago, according to a recent report by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC). The data indicated that, as of Jan. 13, applications to law schools had experienced an overall decline of 15.3 percent from the level they had been at that point a year earlier.
The information in the report was obtained from a password-protected LSAC report and was later confirmed to the ABA Journal by LSAC’s communications department.
The decrease in applications is considered by most an indication that the law school market is correcting itself as it continues to respond to the effects of an economic recession, rising tuition costs and a well-publicized tumultuous legal job market. Seton Hall Law is not impervious to the development, and the school’s admissions department and administration said it is adjusting accordingly to keep pace with a trend that seems to be affecting the law school industry as a whole.
“This is a national trend,” said Gisele Joachim, the dean of enrollment management. “The vast majority of schools are showing a decline in their application pools.”
The dip in applications is not exactly new, even if it has only recently begun to receive publicity. Joachim said the decline actually started when the number of students taking the LSAT declined, beginning with the October 2010 sitting of the entrance exam and continuing at every seating since. The drop-off caught many law schools off-guard, but Joachim said that Seton Hall is prepared for what is likely to be a second consecutive year of fewer applicants.
“What is important is how our law school is both reactive and proactive,” she said. “Change is coming, so the question is: What are we going to do about it?”
One thing Joachim said Seton Hall aims to do is hold onto the quality of the students it admits. Though she acknowledged that restructuring or other adjustments could mean fiscal changes will be necessary, she indicated that those alternatives are more preferable than increasing class sizes by opening the door of admissions to more students.
Despite the sudden drop in applicants last year, Seton Hall stayed close to its median statistics. Joachim said the average LSAC score of those comprising the class of 2014 remained at 159 and the average undergraduate G.P.A. actually rose from 3.43 to 3.5
Though this year’s application picture remains hazy (as of Feb. 28, Joachim said data from the February 2012 sitting was still not available, data that is key to admissions departments projecting what their applicant pool will look like), it is likely that this year’s number of applicants will indicate that more fringe, would-be students are deciding that law school might not be the best decision for them. During tough economic times, graduate programs generally – and law schools specifically – see a boost in applications. Joachim said that had been the case at Seton Hall and other schools for about four years prior to this decline.
But as a result of the economy remaining stagnant for so long, the bubble of applications has burst. Students have incurred more debt while paying their undergraduate tuition. Media coverage of the struggles law school graduates have had finding employment and the unethical practices of some law schools when submitting their admissions and employment data has likely deterred some from choosing law as a career path.
“Many applicants are saying, ‘Hold on – this isn’t what I should be doing,’” Joachim said.
But tracking the number of students applying is only one part of the picture. Joachim indicated the admissions department is particularly focused on getting those students who have been accepted to actually enroll at the school. This is referred to as “yield” or “conversion” and Joachim said there are a few ways Seton Hall plans to convince those admitted to attend.
The first method is by taking a strong stand against the type of behavior that has gotten several other schools into trouble and not being “loose with its numbers,” she said. Seton Hall plans to be transparent by allowing admitted applicants to access a website that includes the employment data of former students and related information. Joachim said the school also conduct a voluntary audit of its admissions numbers and has a mission to remain open and accessible to those who seek the information.
The school will also be increasing personal contact with admitted students, particularly during the decision-making process. This includes having faculty members and current students reach out to those admitted and being available for any questions or concerns they might have.
Seton Hall’s priority deadline for applications is April 1, so Joachim said it is still too early to know the exact state of this decline or the degree to which it might be continuing. But she also said that the dip in applications, and the proper responses to it, could ultimately be a benefit for both students and the law school.
“Even with an application decline, we can still come forward with a strong class in terms of quality and quantity,” she said. “In the long-term, the trend of law school admissions is going to reward the schools that play by the rules.”