In light of shrinking enrollments, Twin Cities law schools tighten their belts

  • Article by: LYDIA COUTRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 10, 2013 - 10:05 PM

Enrollment’s fallen, so Twin Cities law schools test options.

Twin Cities law schools are being forced to make difficult choices about where to cut as they confront what has become a nationwide pullback in enrollments.

Some have admitted fewer students and are cutting faculty or staff to make up for the loss in tuition revenue. Others are admitting bigger classes at the risk of a potential drop in national rankings.

Hamline University School of Law opted for the smaller class — 56 percent smaller than in 2010 — and turned to its biggest operating expense, faculty, to balance the budget. Since 2011, when the school began offering early retirement incentives, 10 faculty members have retired and four more have accepted agreements to retire in the next academic year.

“We are exploring whether or not we need to reduce it even by a few more,” said Hamline law dean Don Lewis.

Like law schools across the country, Twin Cities law schools enjoyed a surge in applications in 2009 and 2010. Since then, here and nationally, numbers have been falling. Applications were down in all four of the metro area’s schools for the third year in a row.

Law school is no longer the default decision it used to be for smart college graduates who aren’t sure where to go next, said James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement.

“There are times in our history and in our economy where that has served people well,” Leipold said. “I think for those people, the message should be, ‘You know, law school’s probably not the fallback decision it used to be.’ ”

Same issue, new answers

While the problem is the same, responses are distinct.

“Surely the one thing that would signify failure is to do nothing, to not change,” Leipold said. “I think every law school has to change.”

Hamline’s Lewis said he won’t admit a larger class for money. Doing so “in this environment is not a good choice.”

But after admitting a small class last year, the University of Minnesota Law School can’t afford to do so again. It is aiming to enroll more students. Dean David Wippman recognizes this could mean a drop in the median LSAT and GPA scores used by U.S. News & World Report in its rankings.

“It’s something that we have to pay a lot of attention to,” Wippman said.

The change doesn’t necessarily mean lower standards, he said, “it’s just we’ll have a slightly different mix.”

The U’s law school offered retirement incentives, but no faculty members accepted. Nine staff members left through a voluntary program.

University of St. Thomas School of Law is on track for its smallest class in more than 10 years after receiving 59 percent fewer applications this year than in 2010. Dean Rob Vischer said he decided to not renew a visiting professor’s contract and to eliminate 2 ½ staff positions.

To get faculty and staff more in line with a smaller student body, William Mitchell College of Law Dean Eric Janus chose not to replace two faculty members who retired and a third who took another job. They’ve also reduced the staff size by 20 percent and cut operating costs elsewhere, such as replacing computers less often.

  • U.S. law schools

    • In 2004, 100,000 applied to U.S. law schools; this year there are likely to be 54,000, for more than 40,000 spots. Graduates will compete for about 25,000 jobs.

    • Just more than half the class of 2012 has long-term, full-time work requiring a law degree.

    • There is one lawyer for every 265 Americans, more than twice the rate in 1970.

    • Starting lawyers from class of 2012 had median starting salary of $61,245, down 17 percent from 2009.

    • In 2001, average tuition for private law school was $23,000; in 2012 it was $40,500 (public law schools: $8,500 and $23,600).

    • Among private law school graduates, average debt in 2001 was $70,000; in 2011 it was $125,000.

    Bloomberg, New York Times

    Average debt of 2012 law school graduates who borrowed

    William Mitchell College of Law: $116,575

    Hamline University School of Law: $104,647

    University of Minnesota Law School: $100,699

    University of St. Thomas School of Law: $96,659

    Source: U.S. News and World Report

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