LSAC has released its latest data regarding the number of total applicants to law school in this cycle (h/t Steve Schwartz). The numbers are not surprising, but should still be extremely sobering for legal academia. As of March 30, 60,693 people had applied to at least one law school in this admissions cycle. This represents a 15.6% decline from the same point last year. Given that applications last year were down 10.7% from the year before, law schools are dealing with a 24% decline in applicants since 2010, from 87,900 total applicants that year, to 78,900 in 2011, to about 66,500 this year (last year's application pool at this time represented 91% of the final total). Prior to last year the lowest total of applicants in any year in the previous decade had been 84,000, so it's fair to say that the current situation reflects what can be called a collapse in demand for law school admission.
Interestingly, the percentage decline in applicants relative to LSAT takers is to some extent inversely related to test takers' LSAT scores (in other words the decline in applicants is much steeper among people with high scores relative to those with low scores). This means of course that high-ranked schools will be under more pressure to secure applications from increasingly scarce well-credentialed applicants. Low-ranked schools, which in some cases are already pressing against the mathematical limits of lowered admissions standards, will be facing a different set of challenges.
The growing desperation of at least some law schools is reflected in facts such as that relayed to me last week by several 1Ls, who told me they receive regular emails pleas from various schools, promising them instant admission and generous "scholarship" support, including in some cases a full tuition waiver, if they will but apply. Obviously these schools must be blast emailing tens of thousands of people who got good LSAT scores in the last year or two, in the hope that some of them have not enrolled in law school yet and can be enticed to do so now.
This latest data suggests certain developments are likely in the law school world over the next few years:
(1) In 2013, average advertised (sticker) tuition at law schools is likely to actually decline in real dollar terms, for the first time in at least the last 50 years. This fall, advertised tuition is rising only about one percent over inflation at private law schools. Next fall, advertised tuition may not rise at all, and may even decline in nominal terms.
(2) Real law school tuition -- that is, actual dollars collected -- will decline this coming academic year. The modest rise in advertised tuition is very likely to be more than cancelled out by steeper discounts over sticker, as schools compete for scarce applicants.
(3) Over the next few months a number of schools will announce reductions in their incoming class sizes as a matter of changing institutional policy. In many if not all cases this will be making a virtue of necessity.
(4) Several law schools will see tenure-track faculty layoffs. At other schools, formerly lax tenure standards will suddenly be tightened sharply.
(5) Within the next three years, at least one ABA-accredited school will announce it will be ceasing operations. Several more will then follow suit.
Rome wasn't sacked in a day.
Update: See also