Fifteen of the 31 schools polled by the Midwest Alliance for Law School Admissions said their applications were down by 28 percent or more. Only one school has experienced an application volume within 5 percent of last year's total to date. The poll was confidential and did not report the admissions numbers for individual law schools.
Merritt said employment data provided by the nonprofit group Law School Transparency may have underscored that most law schools place graduates in jobs locally, encouraging prospective students to apply where they ultimately want to practice. Regions with major legal hubs may be more attractive now, she said.
The dearth of applications has become a touchy subject for admissions officers, Zearfoss said. "You almost don't want to ask other admissions deans about their numbers," she said. "It's delicate." In fact, a number of law school deans did not respond or declined to discuss their application figures.
Law schools basically have two options at this point, Organ said. They can reach deeper into their applicant pools and take students with lower academic credentials, risking their U.S. News and World Report ranking; or accept smaller classes by continuing to insist on higher LSAT scores and undergraduate grade-point averages both of which are weighted heavily in the magazine's law school rankings.
Most schools will probably decide upon a combination of approaches, according to a survey of incoming class sizes and the academic credentials of this year's crop of students at U.S. News' top 100 schools, as reported on their websites. (The survey was conducted by officials at a law school who requested not to be identified, citing sensitivities about tracking competitor schools). About two-thirds of those schools are bringing in smaller classes this fall, and approximately half reported lower median LSAT scores.
The situation means admissions officials can't rely on traditional formulas for hitting their enrollment goals, Organ said. "It's a really fluid marketplace. The people you used to admit with a 162 LSAT score may not be there, because they got into a school 10 spots above you in the U.S. News rankings. The top schools may be down a little on their profiles, but they're still taking the top chunk of the applicant pool, and there are fewer people left for everyone else down the chain."
Michigan State University College of Law expects about 2,750 applications this year, down by 28 percent from last year, said assistant dean for admissions and financial aid Charles Roboski. The school plans to reduce its incoming class by as much as 10 percent, and will accept a larger percentage of applicants this year to hit its goal of 280 new students.
"I believe that we'll see more activity in the summer months as schools go to their wait lists, with the ripple effect that this has, and as schools make decisions regarding their classes," Roboski said.
Law schools face an even more pressing problem than merely filling their classes, said Washington University in St. Louis Law School professor Brian Tamanaha. He is the author of Failing Law Schools, a scathing critique of legal education in this country.
"The class of 2010 was really the peak enrollment year, and that class graduates this spring," Tamanaha said. "Although we had smaller entering classes in 2011 and 2012, having that larger class helped fill out enrollment. When that large class is replaced by a much smaller new class this fall, the cumulative effect will be quite significant."
Schools will need to make up for those lost tuition payments. Several have already cut staff, and faculty could be next. "Now we're going to see some program cuts," Tamanaha said. "Our situation will change quite dramatically."
Karen Sloan can be contacted at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in The National Law Journal under the headline “Law schools faces steep fall-off in applicants.”