Law schools expecting enrollment to remain steady

Despite the upheaval and uncertainty the pandemic has created for legal education, law school admissions officers are confident the first-year class entering in the fall of 2020 will be the same size, if not bigger, than the class that started in the fall of 2019.

A Kaplan survey released Tuesday found 52% of admissions officers believe their 1L class starting in the fall of 2020 will have about as many students as the entering class last year despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Another 26% believe the fall 2020 entering class will be larger than the 1L class that arrived in the fall of 2019 while 22% expect it to be smaller.

The survey of admissions officers from 94 ABA-accredited law schools across the country was conducted in June and July.

According to data from the Law School Admissions Council, the number of applicants for the 2020-2021 academic year rose to 62,436 as of July 26. This represents a 0.9% increase from the 61,905 applicants in July 2019 and a 3.7% increase from the 60,198 applicants in July 2018. However, the 378,925 applications submitted in 2020 are down 0.1% from 2019 and 1.7% from 2018.

Indiana University Maurer School of Law, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and Notre Dame Law School have all developed plans to reopen for the fall 2020 semester. IU Maurer and IU McKinney have formulated class schedules that include a mix of in-person and online classes while Notre Dame is moving forward with all in-person classes.

IU Maurer Dean Austen Parrish does not anticipate the 1L class will be smaller. He pointed out the students already have made the decision to get a J.D. degree, taken the LSAT, solicited scholarship offers, and chosen a law school. Moreover, with the economy stalled and with travel restrictions, the students might not have a lot of other options so, he believes, most will follow through on starting classes in the fall.

Although the economy is a driving factor in buoying class size, 67% of the admissions officers told Kaplan that more flexible entrance requirements could entice fence-sitters to enroll this fall. The survey found law schools have extended application deadlines, relaxed deposit requirements and allowed prospective students to apply using unofficial LSAT scores.

“While this has arguably been the most unusual law school admissions cycle in decades, the stability, in terms of just the numbers is remarkable,” said Jeff Thomas, executive director of legal programs at Kaplan. “If you look at an application increase of just under 1%, the casual observer might think that things were business as usual, but behind the scenes there has been a lot going on to ensure a seamless process during unpredictable times, from the rollout of the first at-home version of the LSAT to extended applicant deadlines. This has made a stressful situation for prospective students more manageable.”

Admissions officers are encouraging applicants to enroll as they had planned. As part of the survey, the officers said they expect the application cycle for fall 2021 will be the most competitive in years. Not only will there be fewer available seats because many may get filled by fall 2020 applicants who do defer their start date but also because declining revenues at some schools will shrink the pot of scholarship money.

“If you are an accepted applicant still deliberating about what to do, our advice is to consider the long term,” Thomas said. “While the COVID-19 crisis is likely to continue for at least the rest of the year, your future legal career is something that will last for many decades. Also listen to what admissions officers are telling us. Next cycle might be more competitive and budget shortfalls may make financial aid less available. Overall, this may be a more advantageous year to enroll.”

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