Was Trump Bump fake news? First-year law school numbers drop

So it would seem that young people are now cool with President Trump. Or since his impeachment appears imminent, maybe they see no need to invest a couple hundred grand in legal education to take him on.

How else do you explain the drop in first-year enrollment at the nation’s law schools?

It fell from 38,390 in the fall of 2018 to 38,283 in the fall of 2019, according to recently released data from the American Bar Association (ABA).

That doesn’t track with the so-called Trump Bump. The nation’s law schools saw an uptick in enrollment of 3% in 2018, an increase some speculated was because of Trump and his policies. Polls consistently show that young people are particularly unhappy with the president.

Indeed, young people — by a 2 to 1 margin — were more likely to support his impeachment than oppose it, according to a poll done by the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School.

And surveys have shown that politics have been a motivating factor when it comes to admissions.  A 2019 Kaplan survey found that 87% of admissions officers reported that the political climate played a significant factor in the recent increase in law school applicants.

Yet …

That applicant boost has not translated to more law school students — and least for the 2019 entering class.

Or a host of other factors — besides Trump — could be at play. A number of schools have closed, which obviously affects enrollment. For instance, Arizona Summit Law School in Phoenix, which is closing, had 17 students last year. This year, zero.

Schools could be toughening admission standards to strengthen their standings, as well. If schools are being choosier in their selections, other schools would take note and do so as well, to keep pace with them.

The ABA also has come down hard on poor performing schools. A number have been put on probation, and two — Arizona Summit and Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego — were stripped of accreditation — which was a first.

Or prospective students still could be wary of the investment. Recent debt-to-income figures from the U.S. Department of Education show how dicey it can be. Just 11 schools saw graduates earning more in their first year of work than their debt load. Graduates from more than 110 law schools had median debt exceeding $100,000.

It could be all of the above, actually.

Mike Spivey, founder and consultant at the law school admissions firm, Spivey Consulting, said that a number of factors are contributing to the latest figures. For one, the economy is good, so recent college graduates have more job options. Secondly, the legal job market is not exactly smoking hot.  

“The increase in employment outcomes is a derivative of smaller law school class sizes, not increased hiring demand,” he said. “I would still be cautious as a prospective law student — the legal sector is changing rapidly and this change has not benefited law students seeking jobs at firms.”

Some law schools may be keeping classes smaller because of concerns regarding legal hiring, or they could be doing so because they want to improve or protect their rankings, he said. Likely, it’s a combination of the two, he added.

The applicant pool has been rising. There’s been a 17% increase since the 2014-2015 cycle, yet the matriculant population has barely changed, he noted.

“Economists would look at this and scratch their heads,” Spivey said. “But what that tells us is that there are intrinsic drivers to class size at law schools that are taking precedent over profitability.”

And that shows when it comes to incoming student academic strengths. Nearly 100 schools reported an increase in median LSAT scores, according to a blog post that Spivey authored on his firm’s website. Nearly 150 reported a jump in median GPA. Nearly 75 saw increases in both categories.

“Overall, the average median LSAT at law schools went up from 155.9 to 156.4, an increase of half a point,” Spivey wrote. “Average median GPA went from 3.43 to 3.47. This has very real implications for both applicants and law schools.”

Enrollment figures were hardly consistent among law school, though. Eighty-four of the ABA-accredited law school saw drops. Nearly 120 saw increases or were flat.

Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School saw the biggest enrollment drop, from 541 first-year students to 292. The Lansing, Mich.-based school announced earlier that it was closing its Auburn Hills campus to right-size the institution. It was once the nation’s leader when it came to enrollment. In 2010, it boasted 3,900 students.  

No other school saw an enrollment increase as large as New England Law I Boston, which saw a jump from 185 first-year students to 351.

While J.D. numbers were flat, law schools should be heartened by the increase in non-J.D. students. The number seeking LL.M.s, master’s and certificates rose 7%.