Legal Education

10 to 15 law schools could close if enrollment keeps shrinking, higher-ed market analyst says

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Although there’s been a contraction in the law school market, tuition continues to rise, including at private institutions that take first-year students with lower LSAT scores and have high attrition rates, says Robert Zemsky, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. Zemsky predicts several of these schools will close if trends continue.

His study, Mapping a Contracting Market, analyzed 171 law schools and found that enrollment dropped by 21 percent at private law schools between 2011 and 2015. At public law schools, enrollment dropped by 18 percent. Zemsky also analyzed attrition rates at schools within both categories.

He found that while private schools with the lowest attrition rates and the best LSAT scores had the highest market price per student, those with the highest attrition rates and the worst LSAT scores still cost more than private institutions seen as second or third-tier law schools. Zemsky’s use of market price also figures in scholarships and grants received from schools, rather than just the listed tuition prices.

“You’d think the least attractive school would charge the lowest price. What they’re doing is admitting students with relatively low LSAT scores, and charging them a high price for gambling on them,” says Zemsky, who presented his findings at a recent Chicago conference hosted by the Access Group Center for Research & Policy Analysis.

If the law student market contracts further, it’s possible that between 10 and 15 schools will close, says Zemsky, a founding director of Penn’s Institute for Research on Higher Education. He notes that law schools are already losing money.

“You can’t continue to muddle through and hold your breath,” he told the Chicago audience on Nov. 16. “You can only hold your breath for so long.”

The ABA should focus more on helping law schools consolidate, according to Zemsky. That being said, he doesn’t know of other industry accreditors which have done something like that.

“The ABA could be helpful, but at the moment it’s not,” Zemsky says. “It’s a scorekeeper rather than a helper, and I think the market needs some help.”

Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education, told the ABA Journal that his section had no comment on the matter.

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