Predicting the COVID-19 Summer Of Law School Waitlist Movement

Early in my admissions career, a former boss of mine would often use the following Niels Bohr quote when speaking of law school admissions: “prediction is difficult, especially when it involves the future.” This summer, prediction will be more difficult than ever, not just for applicants, but also for law school admissions professionals. The challenges presented by COVID-19 are new to every single one of us.

Here’s some context for the application situation right now. As of today, LSAT applicants are down by 6.33%, overall applicants are down by 4.28%, and applications are down by 3.05%. 138 of the 201 ABA-accredited law schools have seen a decline in applications this cycle.

What’s really setting this cycle apart is the dramatic difference in application volumes by different LSAT score bands.

We’re seeing substantial increases in applicants at the top of the LSAT score ranges, and declines everywhere else. Normally that would mean fairly low waitlist activity at the top schools. Usually, waitlist movement moves from the top down: Harvard admits students off of its waitlist, pulling from the rest of the top 14. Those schools need to fill spots and reach down to the next “tier,” etc., and so on. Minimal top-down movement would be bad news for general waitlist activity.

However, COVID-19 is forcing everyone to throw away their standard assumptions. We’ve already seen indications that some of the top schools will have at least some waitlist movement in the coming couple weeks. Perhaps a bit more than they’re letting on — no admissions officer really wants to say “we anticipate substantial waitlist movement.” Why is that movement happening? Potentially, due to yield challenges resulting from COVID-19.

So, predicting is going to tricky for this summer, but let's start off with the most confident of predictions. Enrollment at law schools will be down. That is all but a fact at this stage — our firm alone has had a ten-fold increase in questions about deferrals. Moreover, in recent years international students have made up an increasing number of law school students (one law school has over 40% of their student body listed as international students) and particularly revenue sources for law schools, and these students are likely to be attending law school in far fewer numbers this fall. Domestic students may either want to take a year off, or may not be able to make it to law school for various medical/family/logistical reasons and choose not to go the online backup route. So with enrollment down, and unanticipatedly so (until February of this cycle no one could have guessed this scenario), waitlist movement should be up. But this is where the confidence in conjectures ends. Because there are two diametrically opposed variables that will decide whether waitlist movement is sporadic, or massive. Let’s look at each.

Variable #1: Schools will need revenue more than ever and will make decisions based on class size. In the past few days, I have seen a law school not hire someone who I thought they would, due to budgetary reasons. This is just the very tip of that iceberg. Declines in FAFSA renewals have now nearly doubled since February 29 of this year, a major indicator that enrollment will be down across many higher education platforms. This is particularly influential on law schools as a one-two punch, as since the Great Recession, many if not most law schools have essentially been underwritten by their central universities. Put in other terms, they have not been generating revenue. That source of subsidized money is about to disappear for the vast majority of these schools, as central universities are now fighting their own financial crisis — and with yet another budgetary cataclysm, the “demographic cliff,” looming in 2026. Moody’s recently downgraded their outlook for higher education from “stable” to “negative,” predicting significant instability due to COVID-19. So law schools are looking at losing central university support, and, keeping in mind that almost all law schools are tuition-supported rather than endowment-driven, are existentially threatened by facing decreased tuition revenue. There will be a tipping point if this continues where law schools will have to increase enrollment (as a means of increasing revenue) or suffer major consequences, including shutting down. Just yesterday the University of Akron announced they are closing six of eleven schools. One can only guess if their law school is one of the six. At the overall school level, though, the point is clear. This can also have scholarship implications. Tuition discounting has become increasingly prevalent, to the point that as of 2019 almost 75% of law school students received a scholarship of some kind- further straining school finances. As enrollment drops, schools will need to make more admits to stay financially afloat. The question is when — which brings us to variable #2.

Variable #2: Schools will tip toward USNWR metrics rather than revenue streams. Over the past many years, this has been the direction most schools have gone in. We can all put on the Dean of Admissions hat for a moment. If your school’s median LSAT, to use just one metric, is a 165, and you are currently sitting at seat deposits that have your entering class at a 166, trust me when I say there is tremendous pressure on you to keep that +1 increase. So much pressure that when you start losing your 166 + deposits to the “summer melting” of higher ranked schools making waitlist admits, you generally have a very serious discussion with the dean of your school about decreasing enrollment projections to maintain the LSAT increase. This is just one variable in a scenario that has played out thousands of times since the era of USNWR-driven decision-making. Keep in mind that unlike in the business school world, for example, where there are a variety of diffusely accepted rankings sources, thus far USNWR has had a hegemonic reign. Metrics matter to schools. And some schools could see this cycle as a chance to really increase their USNWR ranking, as they may be looking at variable #1 and saying, “This is our year to make moves that others cannot." So the question is, how many schools will do this?

Our prediction

To be fair and transparent, we really do not know which way this will tip. Early this week, I talked to a former dean of a law school and we both speculated on it together. We both guessed that this cycle, probably for the last time for the next several years, schools will take one last break toward rankings over revenue. Which will mean that while there will be a decent amount of waitlist movement, especially more than we could have predicted as late as February, there won’t be an Interstellar-like wave that would move things at an epic and unprecedented level. But even if that scenario is the case, there are already signs of several T14 schools looking at their waitlist (especially for applicants above at least one median), there will be waitlist movement all summer long, and the next cycle will almost certainly see increased class sizes. I hate saying it like this, but the objective reality is that, from a purely admissions standpoint, COVID-19 has hurt law schools and increased the likelihood of admission for students.