Even Top Law Schools Can't Get Students to Apply

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on January 26, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's no secret that law schools are struggling. Top students aren't attending, new grads aren't passing the bar, and pretty much no one is able to pay back their debt. But that crisis isn't confined to the Florida Coastal School of Law; it's reached even the upper crusts.

It seems Harvard and Yale, for all their tea, crumpets, and Supreme Court clerkships, can't get students to enroll, even as they shrink their law school class sizes. Let's look at which top schools are suffering the most.

No One Wants to Go to Your Fancy Law School

At first, the Great Recession was a boon for law schools. Unemployed young'uns sought to ride out the economic downturn in graduate school -- until they saw mass associate deferrals and firm downsizing and realized that law school might not be the best investment. Many schools responded by shrinking their class size, attempting to maintain competitive admissions (and higher U.S. News rankings) by accepting a smaller number of students.

It doesn't seem to have worked, though.

Many of the country's top law schools have seen drops in application far exceeding the median 18 percent dip. Bloomberg recently looked at application data from the ABA and found that the top 20 schools, as ranked by U.S. News, have not been able to keep application numbers up from their 2011 levels. Here's which schools have suffered the most:

      1. University of Minnesota, down 44 percent
      2. University of Virginia, down 38 percent
      3. Cornell, down 30 percent
      4. University of California, Berkeley, down 29 percent
      5. University of Southern California, down 29 percent
      6. UCLA, down 28 percent
      7. Columbia, down 23 percent
      8. New York University, down 21 percent
      9. Duke University, down 21 percent
      10. Michigan, down 20 percent
      11. Harvard, down 18 percent.

Other schools saw a decline in applicants as well -- Georgetown's applications were down 17 percent, and Yale's were down 13 percent -- but the remaining schools in the top twenty all saw a decline less than the 18 percent median.

Which Law Schools Actually Did Alright?

Only three top schools saw an increase in applicants between 2011 and 2015. Stanford's applications rose a modest 1.6 percent and the University of Pennsylvania saw a 2.4 percent increase. But if there was any star of law school application game over the past four years, it's Washington University in St. Louis. Wash U's law school saw applications increase by an astounding 20 percent, while the rest of its peers shrank.

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