By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
In 1997, the University of Miami school of law in Florida made an unusual announcement: It was going to reduce its enrollment by a third, voluntarily cutting millions out of its budget.
“The idea was that the students you have left would have a better experience as part of a smaller student body,” said Dennis Lynch, Miami’s law dean.
The reduction is being phased in over time, but eventually it will cost the school more than $6 million in annual income, all in the hope that tougher competition for spots will bring better students.
“It’s too early to tell if it’s working,” Mr. Lynch said, “but we’ll find out soon enough.”
Over the last few years, dozens of law schools have done as Miami has, voluntarily reducing their enrollment in an attempt to improve the quality of their programs and improve their reputations.
The University of Toledo has become the latest, announcing last month that its enrollment will drop from the current 523 students to 430 by fall, 2001. The standardized test scores and bar-passage rates of UT’s law students have dropped in the 1990s, and university officials said a smaller student body would bring those numbers back up.
“The motivation behind this proposal is simple,” UT trustee James Tuschman said at the time. “We want to attract the best and the brightest to our law school here at the university, we want the law school to regain its position of pride among Ohio law schools, and we want our students to enjoy an unparalleled academic and professional experience here at the university.”
But while many schools have had success with the change, some caution that smaller does not always mean better.
“I think the faculty and others here have realized as it’s progressed that it may be much more complicated than they thought it would be,” Mr. Lynch said. “We have to be careful to see that we’re not hurting the quality of education we provide by being too small.”
The idea that UT’s law school should be smaller isn’t new. Since 1995, the school has been shrinking as part of a plan by then Dean Albert Quick to improve instruction. In 1995, when Mr. Quick took office, the law school enrolled 675 students. The next year, the number dropped to 635, then 582, then 547.
But despite the increased selectivity, statistics do not seem to indicate that the quality of students or education has markedly improved over the last few years.
The median score on the Law School Admissions Test – the standardized test required of all applicants – has dropped slightly in that period, from 153 in 1995 to 152 now. UT’s LSAT median stood at 157 just seven years ago.
During the same period, UT’s graduates have had a tougher time passing the state’s bar exam, which is given twice a year.
From 1990 to 1993, UT finished in the top four of Ohio’s nine law schools in its bar-passage rate on each of the eight tests. Since 1994, however, UT has finished in the top four on only three of the 12 tests. UT ranked eighth in the most recent testing cycle.
Over the same period, it’s become statistically easier to get into UT law. In 1992, the school accepted only 34.6 per cent of 1,115 applicants into its day program. Last year, it accepted 66.8 per cent; only 533 students applied.
Much of that reduction in applications is based on a nationwide trend in the 1990s. “The national applicant pool went through a seven, eight-year period of going down on an annual basis,” said Richard Hurt, deputy consultant for legal education at the American Bar Association.
In 1991, a record 99,327 people applied to at least one law school. By last year, that number had dropped to 74,380. The strong economy of the 1990s has convinced many people they can find high-paying careers outside of law, while many law firms have reorganized and have fewer positions available, Mr. Hurt said.
With fewer applicants and fewer jobs for those who graduate, many law schools have made a decision like UT’s. At least two dozen law schools have cut their enrollment by 5 per cent or more in the last five years, according to Carl Monk, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools.
Mr. Monk, a former dean of Washburn University’s law school in Topeka, said he instituted a similar change there in the early 1980s.
“We cut our student body by about 30 per cent, for very similar reasons” to UT’s, he said. “We wanted to have more small class instruction to give a better opportunity, pedagogically, to students.”
But Mr. Lynch at the University of Miami is cautious about the reduction, which was instituted by his predecessor, Samuel Thompson. Accepting such a radical reduction in the school’s revenue could mean money won’t be available to pay for important new programs.
“There are ways to improve your educational mission with additional revenue,” he said. “You’re going to find areas of the law where you’re not providing the education you want to, where a faculty addition would be critical. Or you’ll want to start an innovative program to create linkages with schools in Latin America or Europe. All of that takes revenue, and there’s a tension if there’s no money to pay for it.”
Reducing overall enrollment by more than 90 students could cost UT more than $1 million in revenue. Ohio residents pay $7,778 in tuition and fees; out-of-state students pay $15,010.
To help pay for the shrinkage, the law school will reduce its number of permanent faculty to 28 from its traditional 31.
But UT President Vik Kapoor has agreed not to cut funding for the college, even with its reduced revenues. “We don’t want the law school to be a money maker,” he said last week. “We want it to be a great institution.”
UT’s proposed reduction in enrollment isn’t as large as it may seem at first glance. The class that entered in 1998 had only 166 students. Last year’s entering class was larger than expected at 190 students, in part because the law school’s yield rate – the percentage of those accepted who end up attending UT – was its highest since 1991.
UT isn’t the only local school to reduce its law enrollment. Ohio Northern University made the decision last year “to significantly raise the qualifications of our students,” said Louis Lobenhofer, the school’s interim director of admissions.
ONU’s entering class in 1999 had only 108 students, down from about 130 the previous year and more than 190 in the early 1990s. “We decided that if higher qualifications meant lower enrollment, we would take that hit,” Mr. Lobenhofer said.
The move has paid off in at least one statistical measure: the median LSAT score of new ONU students. In 1998, the median was 146, which is around the 35th percentile. Last year’s class had a median of 150, at the 48th percentile.
But Mr. Lobenhofer said that ONU would like to see its enrollment go back up “as the quality of the applicant pool permits.”
Creighton University in Omaha downsized its law school in 1997, reducing entering classes from 180 to 150.
“We wanted to be more selective,” said Patrick Borchers, Creighton’s law dean. “And we wanted to make sure we weren’t flooding the market with people with law degrees. We wanted to make sure there were good placement opportunities for our students, and with a larger enrollment, there were a significant number of students who would have difficulty finding the job they wanted.”
At UT, placement has been one of its success stories. The percentage of students employed six to nine months after graduation was 97 per cent in 1998, the most recent numbers available. That number has been rising steadily since 1993, when it was only 82 per cent. The national average for 1998 was 89.9 per cent.