Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Declines in university applications?

Bloomberg reported this week that applications are down this year at 7 of 8 top liberal arts colleges, some colleges down as much as 20%. Only Wellesley College was up, about 2%. What about law schools? Early reports are that law school applications are flat overall, but some schools are actually reporting increases. For instance University of Pennsylvania Law School is reporting an almost record increases in applications of 6%.

So, what will happen to law school applications and enrollments by fall 2009? Normally we might expect more people to go to law school during hard economic times. But the current economic woes are pretty unprecedented. At the undergraduate level, it seems that private schools with the highest tuition are being hit the hardest in terms of application declines this year. Moreover, students looking for bargains may attend more state schools and make fewer applications. After all, law school is hardly an inexpensive endeavor. For instance, University of Pennsylvania at $41,960 for tuition is not exactly a bargain.

The high cost of law school, general economic uncertainty and the difficulty of getting loans would seem to favor some of the state schools that are bargain oriented. Early application numbers tell a mixed story. The good news is that law schools so far don't seem to be experiencing the deep declines present at the liberal arts colleges. The big problems at law schools may not be less applications, but rather lower budgets due to declining endowments and support from state revenues. At least at this point, these latter problems may have the greatest impact on law school education going forward.

What news for law schools going forward? Warren Buffet remarked recently that the economy “has fallen off a cliff.” The World Bank expects the world economy to contract in 2009. The market's pattern recently can best be described simply as one of uncertainty. The uncertainty/volatility in the markets will continue to affect the budgets available at law schools for some time to come. While this might seem grim in terms of university budgets, the impact may turn out to be harsh but manageable so long as law school applications remain somewhat stable. Like Americans generally, the law schools may simply find themselves tightening their belts to ride out lean budgetary times. As Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked:
When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.

Probably good advice for deans trying to balance the law school budget.


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