The ABA has released the 2019 509 reports, so it's time for us to dive in and see what kind of information and trends can be gleaned from the data. LSAC's President Kellye Testy has already released a blog, which can be found here, offering LSAC's perspective on the data and what it may mean for schools going forward. We'll also be mixing in some data provided by LSAC, which can be found on their website here. We'd like to express our gratitude to the ABA and LSAC for their work to increase transparency in legal education.
Generally we're going to look at the data we think is most directly relevant to law schools and applicants. The ABA collects so much information that it would be impossible to examine it all in such a short time—but we hope to highlight things that are especially interesting.
Applicants and Matriculants
Let's start by talking about the total application pool. The 2018-2019 cycle ended with a total of 62,543 applicants. That was a growth of about 3.25% from the prior year, and represented legal education's best year since the 2011-2012 cycle. However, overall matriculants to law school in Fall 2019 were actually down very slightly, by about a quarter of a percent.
Applicant volume has recovered significantly since the depths of the financial crisis bottoming out. Since the 2014-2015 cycle, there has been an increase of about 9,000 applicants, an almost 17% growth in the applicant pool. Despite this growth, the matriculant population has barely changed. In Fall 2019 there were only about 1,200 more first year law students than the nadir in 2014-2015, an increase of about 3.3%. Growth in student population simply has not tracked growth in applicant volume.
As many of you undoubtedly know, the GRE is being accepted at a growing number of US law schools. Last cycle ended with 2,354 non-LSAT applicants, an increase of about 20% over the prior cycle. It's reasonable to conclude that the bulk of this growth came from those using a GRE score to apply.
56 law schools reported accepting at least one non-LSAT applicant for their fall 2019 entering class. Here are the top ten in percentage of their incoming class made up of non-LSAT students:
So far this cycle, the number of non-LSAT applicants is relatively flat. We'll see what happens with matriculants.
Class Size Changes
Interestingly enough, there seems to be something of a split in class size changes by USNWR rank.
The top 50 ranked law schools actually accounted for a decline in 352 incoming students—while all other schools added 264.
There are many potential reasons for the flat matriculant data. Many law schools responded aggressively to the early and mid 2010s decline in applicants by reducing their footprint: smaller faculty sizes, less expenditures, a focus on a "lean" operation. These schools may prefer their new operating model. Or they might not feel they have the capacity to bring in larger new class sizes.
There are also a tremendous number of schools who see the advantages of maintaining relatively smaller class sizes. There are compelling arguments to do so from both a career outcomes perspective and a rankings perspective.
While the legal market has improved substantially, there are still significant challenges to graduates seeking employment. 22.3% of the 2018 graduating class failed to secure full-time, long-term, JD-required or -advantage positions within 10 months of graduating. And of course, bar passage rates remain a significant concern at many law schools, particularly in light of the ABA's new accreditation requirements.
Other schools are focused on taking advantage of the substantial rankings benefits a smaller class size brings. Aside from allowing a school to better control and increase its median LSAT and GPA, smaller class size has a direct and positive effect on student/faculty ratio, acceptance rate, and employment outcomes. It can also help a school's expenditures per student, an incredibly important component of the USNWR rankings.
It's also worth noting the small decline in applications last cycle defied the overall increase in applicants.
88 schools saw an increase in the number of applicants, while 112 saw a decline in the number of applicants.
It's not immediately clear what caused this decline in the number of applications submitted by each applicant, which went from 6.37 to 6.08. Generally we would have expected that applicants, in the wake of 2017-2018's competitive cycle, would apply more widely to give themselves the best possible chance of a desirable outcome. It's possible that increased application and LSAC fees deterred applicants from applying as broadly as they had the prior cycle. It could also be a random fluctuation. Thus far this cycle the trend has reversed, and applications per applicant have increased. We'll see how things look at the end of the year.
Incoming Class LSAT and GPA
This is what everyone really cares about, right? Well let's get to it.
The increase in applicants last year was good for the stats of 2019's incoming class. 98 law schools reported an increase in their median LSAT, and 145 reported increases in their median GPA. 73 schools were able to increase both measures. 19 schools were able to increase all six LSAT/GPA measures: medians, 25ths, and 75ths. They, and the changes in these factors, are listed below.
Overall, the average median LSAT at law schools went up from 155.9 to 156.4, an increase of half a point. Average median GPA went from 3.43 to 3.47. This has very real implications for both applicants and law schools.
Impact of Increasing Medians
For applicants, admissions has definitely become more competitive than a few years ago. It was predictable that increases in applicant volume would lead to more competitive admissions cycles, but what's really been a double whammy is that class sizes haven't really kept pace with the increase in applicants (as discussed above). This has enabled schools to increase their test scores and GPAs more than they might have been able to otherwise do if they were also increasing class size. It's too early to know if that will repeat this cycle, though the current increase in applicants who scored a 165+ on the LSAT bears watching.
Meanwhile, schools that are raising their medians in hopes of seeing a corresponding rankings benefit might be somewhat disappointed. Why? Because of how USNWR calculates the impact of LSAT and GPA median on its rankings. We go into much more detail in a blog post here, but a brief recap: school medians are weighed against the overall average of all schools, standardized, and then assigned their rankings weight.
So let's consider the increase in LSAT median at a given school. Since the overall average LSAT median went up by 0.5 (it may be slightly different at only USNWR-ranked schools, but for our purposes this is a pretty good estimate), a school that saw their LSAT increase by one point will see the rankings boost diluted because of the increase in national average. How much exactly depends on the school's specific LSAT score and corresponding percentile.
The same will apply to GPA. In fact, this year it's very possible for a school to have increased its median GPA but actually see its USNWR score contribution from GPA decline. Of course, the overall score is very unlikely to be seriously hurt by increasing median GPA less than the average this year. It would take serious bad luck in tiebreakers to have an actual impact on a given school's place in the rankings.
The point here is that as school admissions profiles become more competitive, schools that want to maintain their ranking must keep up with the changes in national average (or, alternatively, increase their performance in other rankings categories by a comparative amount). And schools that want to improve their ranking will need to put their efforts into a higher gear to outpace the growth in national averages. So don't expect to see major changes this year in the USNWR rankings just from median GPA and LSAT.
On the other hand, increases in the academic credentials of the incoming class (if one defines these credentials as GPA and LSAT) may lend themselves to better bar passage rates down the line. The link between test scores, grades, and ultimate bar passage is... controversial—but we feel it's reasonable to infer that an entering class that is better credentialed is unlikely to hurt bar passage rates.
Selectivity and Yield
Thanks to increasing applicants, law schools were able to be pickier about who they admitted to their class. The average acceptance rate nationally declined to 45.1% from 46.1%, and yield increased from 29.9% to 31.6%.
115 schools saw a decline in their acceptance rate, with 35 schools showing an acceptance rate of less than 30%.
Scholarship assistance has become the norm for law schools. Large sticker prices are often discounted by merit-based aid; less often, need-based aid is also a factor.
The increase in applicants could have allowed schools to decrease their utilization of scholarships as a way of attracting students – if economic factors were the only things at play. However, the discount rate continued to increase at all ABA schools. In 2019 73.3%, of law school students were receiving a scholarship of some kind. Let that sink in. Almost three quarters of all US law students were not paying the advertised sticker price to receive their legal education.
We wonder if the legal education pipeline has become entirely dependent on using scholarships as a way of attracting students. From our work with both law schools and central universities, we know that declining law school revenue is an enormous concern. Many law schools are already operating in the red. Excepting a handful of programs with enormous endowments, that's clearly not a sustainable practice. Change has to happen at some point; the question is when and how.
If that change comes in the form of declining scholarships, we can very easily envision a scenario whereby such declines lead to fewer applicants and matriculants. Applicants are savvier than ever, and routinely cite cost as one of their primary factors when deciding which law school to attend. We'd analogize it to the Federal Reserve's response to the financial crisis: flood the system with money and you can fix the problem... but only for so long. Eventually the money has to be cut off, or at least slowed down. And as we're seeing in the real world, well, that's not so easy.
While ABA data is not granular enough to determine exactly how generous schools are, we can make general inferences from the available data.
There are 48 law schools where at least 90% of the class receives scholarship assistance of any amount. There are 5 schools where 100% of the class receives scholarship assistance: Concordia Law School, Pennsylvania State Dickinson, Liberty University, St. Thomas University of Minnesota, and Widener University of Delaware. That's right, not a single student at those schools pays sticker price to attend. Overall, there are only 18 schools where less than half the student population receives financial aid.
Of course, the raw percentage of students receiving scholarships can be deceiving if most of them are receiving small amounts. If we define generosity by looking at how many students at a given school receive a full scholarship or more, then our top five performers are Pennsylvania State- Dickinson (76%), Pennsylvania State- University Park (55%), Northeastern University (44%), Wayne State University 39%, and the University of Nevada- Las Vegas (39%).
Another portion of merit aid comes in the form of conditional scholarships. Generally, these require the student perform at a certain standard other than good academic standing. There's no universal ABA regulation on this — schools are free to set the condition as high or low as they want, so long as the conditions are clearly laid out in offer letters.
Unfortunately, many students don't quite grasp the complexity of conditional offers. As we all know, law school grading is very different from what most non-STEM undergraduates are used to. The dreaded curve makes your law school grades unpredictable at best.
83 law schools reported that at least 1 member of their incoming 2018 class had conditional scholarships. Of those, 12 reported that not a single student entering with a conditional scholarship had it reduced or eliminated. 2,492 students had their scholarships reduced or eliminated, an overall rate of 27% of those who received them. Overall, 6.5% of all law students starting in 2018 had their scholarship reduced or eliminated.
At 7 universities, over 50% of those students entering with a conditional scholarship had it reduced or eliminated.
Fortunately, the national average loss rate has been going down.
Law schools have now seen a real trend of moving away from the leanest times. They will be setting more ambitious goals for target median LSATs and GPAs above that which they currently have. Not all will hit their targets, but if nothing else it will slow down the pace of admissions this current cycle. And we have already seen that. More than anything, though, this is a unique cycle with more LSAT administrations and a one-time test where takers received their score and were then given the option to keep or cancel. If nothing else, when we get this cycle's full data it will be intriguing to dissect — but we aren't near there. At this stage, estimations for the current cycle are still very much projections or guesses for all.