At region’s law schools, a struggle to get students

September 15, 2013

Some of Washington’s top law schools are enrolling far fewer first-year students this fall than in previous years, and, in some cases, admitting students with lower grade-point averages and Law School Admission Test scores than in years past.

Enrollment of first-year students at the nation’s law schools has been falling steadily since 2010 — hitting a 10-year low of 44,481 for the 2012-13 school year — as the shrinking availability of law firm jobs chips away at demand for a legal education.

Enrollment trends at Georgetown, George Washington and George Mason reflect a nationwide phenomenon: Top-tier schools are still able to recruit top students, but even they are having to cut class size to maintain quality and amp up financial aid to win over students. And mid-tier schools are being hit harder, slashing enrollment more dramatically while also seeing the quality of students — at least as measured by LSAT and GPA scores — slip.

Georgetown Law (No. 14 in the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings) enrolled 544 first-year students this fall — possibly its smallest class ever, according to dean of admissions Andy Cornblatt — and down 8 percent compared with the 591 students who enrolled in fall 2010. The school said the applicant pool maintained a median LSAT score of 168 and a 3.75 GPA for incoming students.

“To add more at this point would’ve been a little below what we would’ve normally taken, so we decided not to do it,” Cornblatt said. The students who missed the cut “were perfectly qualified students that most law schools would’ve killed for, they were just not quite at the level we want them to be at Georgetown.”

The shrinking number of applicants is pushing law schools to offer more financial aid and recruit top students more aggressively. Both Georgetown and George Washington (No. 21 ranking) — which saw enrollment rebound this fall to 481 students from 399, though that’s still smaller than its usual 500-plus class — are offering more financial aid this year, though neither program has released exact numbers.

“This year, the importance of financial aid got racheted up exponentially,” Cornblatt said. “The competition among the top schools is more ferocious because there are just fewer people in that very top group of applicants. You had an arms race going on among top law schools so the best applicants would seriously consider coming to your school.”

Georgetown is also “personalizing” its admissions process more, Cornblatt said, having alumni and admissions officers interview more students.

“This year’s entering class, 56 percent either I have met or alumni has met and interviewed,” he said. “Five years ago, that number would’ve been zero.”

George Mason (No. 41 ranking) enrolled 151 first-year students this fall — up slightly from last year’s 147, but only half of the 303 who enrolled in 2010. The program’s median LSAT score and GPA also slipped to their lowest levels in several years, from 163 to 161 and 3.7 to 3.59, respectively.

Dan Polsby, dean of George Mason, attributes the slide to what he calls a “pain cascade” among the nation’s law schools: Elite, well-funded programs are faring better because they can offer top students more money, while schools like his are being hit harder.

“Some of the programs against which we compete are very old and rich programs,” he said. “We do have some scholarships and financial aid, but not a lot ... Schools that are very rich are able to fill their classes with the very best kids, and price is no object for them.”

But that’s not the case for most of the industry, which is left fighting over the remainder of a shrinking applicant pool.

“There’s a lot less to go around once you descend from the ethereal heights to the altitudes that most of the law school industry subsists at — where we subsist and a great majority of our competitors subsist,” Polsby said. “Things are tougher for us. There’s a pain cascade that can be discerned where I live, that my rich competitors only have to read about.”

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for Capital Business, which she joined in 2011. She was previously a reporter at the Daily Journal in Los Angeles, covering LA civil courts and labor and employment law.
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