As June begins, we're coming up on the close of the 2019-2020 application cycle and the start of 2020-2021. As hard as it might be to believe, in just about 12 weeks, applications for the fall 2021 entering class will open at a number of schools. We'll have an in-depth look at what we expect the 2020-2021 cycle to look like in the near future, but today we wanted to examine some preliminary indicators.
What are we going to look at? LSAT registrant volume. Why do we care about that? Because the LSAT is presently the largest source of prospective applicants to law school. So far this cycle about 93% of individuals who have submitted an application did so with an LSAT score on file. The LSAT is a useful way of gauging how large the potential applicant pool is. You can check out source data here.
July 2020 LSAT registration closed yesterday, meaning that today we have final peak registrant numbers. 20,928 individuals are currently registered for the July Flex test. The registration deadline extension from May 28th to June 1st looks to have enabled another 2,000 or so individuals to sign up for the July test.
June 2020's test will be happening in about two weeks. There are currently 11,611 individuals registered for that exam.
How do both those numbers compare to prior years? They're actually down a fair amount.
The June exam this year will be quite small, either the smallest or second smallest in LSAT history. July is rather larger, but still a decline from last cycle. We also wanted to look at the combined volume, to try and smooth out differences and account for overall early registrant volume. Even here, 2020 falls short of 2018 and 2019. There's about a 13.1% decline in registrants from 2018, and a 23.3% decline from 2019.
In fact, the above registrant numbers for 2020 likely understate the decline. After registration deadlines close, registrant numbers only go one way: down. People regularly withdraw their registrations before the test; in the last 10 days, about 300 individuals withdrew their June 2020 registration. The few days preceding the test are especially high in withdrawal volume. Predicting total withdrawals is quite difficult; this is especially true with the Flex exams. These tests are quite new, and registrant response to them is unprecedented. Nonetheless, it's probably safe to say at least 2,000 individuals total will withdraw from the June and July exams. This would mean about an 18.5% decline in LSAT takers from June/July 2018, and a 28% decline from June/July 2019.
Now come the caveats about why it's hard to read too much into this data.
- Both June and July 2020 are being administered as Flex exams, meaning they're taken online and at home with a different section structure than the in-person tests (one LR section instead of two with no experimental section). We really have no indication as to how applicants feel about taking a Flex test versus a regular test. It's very possible that potential applicants are reluctant to take a Flex exam, and are holding off in hopes that August and onward will be in the traditional, in-person format. There are some positive signs for August, at the least, which already has about 4,000 registrants despite only opening registration a few days ago.
- COVID-19 makes any past comparisons hard. We just don't know how the pandemic is impacting test-takers' decision making. For example, it could be that the current recessive economy and widespread unemployment are creating financial difficulties preventing potential test takers from taking the test (we would note that, fortunately, LSAC will not be raising fees this year).
- There is not a 1:1 ratio of test takers to applicants. First, many test takers are taking it a second time, but a second take doesn't add a new applicant to the pool. First-time test taker numbers are more revealing, but we won't have those until early fall. Generally the trend has been that each LSAT exam has a lower first-time ratio than its predecessor, though that could change this year as the July 2019 test likely deflated first-time rates the rest of the year. Further, each year the ratio of people who take the test to actual applicants varies unpredictably.
- Speaking of July 2019, any comparisons that include July 2019 data are a bit of a stretch. As many people will recall, LSAC offered a one-time special deal to those test takers as it was switching to the digital format: the opportunity to see your test score and cancel for a free retake. It seems pretty clear that offer drove a surge in July 2019 test takers, though this likely came primarily at the expense of June 2019.
- It's possible that growing adoption of the GRE could be eating into LSAT volume somewhat. Each cycle since the allowance of non-LSAT tests for admissions has seen growth in the number of applicants not using an LSAT. This would mean there's a population of to-be applicants we simply can't yet see.
So we'll keep a close eye on August and October registrations. Large spikes in registrants for either of those dates could very easily make up for the current declines in test registrants. We're certainly not far enough behind to declare that the 2020-2021 cycle is going to see less volume. But higher education does tend to be counter-cyclical: in a recessive economy we'd expect growth in applicants, and hence LSAT takers. We haven't seen it yet, but we still might.