Enrollment proves strong for Akron Law
Legal News Reporter
Published: July 13, 2016
During the past six years, the number of students applying to U.S. law schools has declined significantly, and schools have experienced a subsequent decrease in their enrollment numbers. The University of Akron School of Law, however, may have managed to buck the national trend.
According to statistics published by the American Bar Association, national law school enrollment peaked at 52,488 students during the 2010 academic school year. That number has fallen every year since, with only 37,058 students enrolling in 2015.
Matthew Wilson, dean of The University of Akron School of Law, commented on this downward trend, calling the decrease in students “unprecedented.”
“The number of applicants has really taken a nose dive,” he said.
Nolan James, the law school’s director of admissions, indicated that Akron Law was initially on track with the national trend — but the school brought in a large incoming class in 2015 and is expected to experience another increase in enrollment this fall.
“Akron’s enrollment numbers were on par with national enrollment in that we saw our largest enrollment numbers between the years of 2008 and 2010. Our enrollment declined between 2011 and 2014,” James said. “In 2015 we saw a 26 percent increase in enrollment, and we are projecting enrollment to be up this year as well.”
The law school’s 2015 incoming class consisted of 147 students — up from 116 in 2014, he said.
National Trends Tied to Economy and Public Perception
It appears there is no single explanation as to why schools across the country have continued to experience a decline in enrollment.
James indicated that enrollment tends to be “cyclical” and is tied to the health of the economy. As the economy has slowly improved since the 2008 recession, James said students may have fewer reasons to attend law school.
“There are economic factors that contribute to students making the choice to attend law school,” he said. “As the economy improves and great job prospects are present for young professionals, individuals who are on the fence about law school are more likely to opt into working rather than pursuing a legal education.”
Wilson offered another explanation. He said that some law schools began to grow too quickly. This led to a lot of students graduating, many of whom were unable to find work in the legal profession. According to Wilson, this resulted in negative public perception regarding the value of a law degree.
“There was a lot of frustration,” Wilson said. “The word of mouth was: don’t go; there’s not enough jobs.”
Whatever the reason for the national decrease in enrollment, Wilson said law schools must compete for students in order to remain financially viable. While public law schools do obtain donations and state funds, James called enrollment “the lifeblood of all institutions of higher education.”
“True revenue is generated by tuition dollars,” he said.
“One of the things I set my sights on was having a robust law school,” Wilson said. “That was important to have healthy enrollment so you can sustain staff, faculty, programming and student services.”
Growth at The University of Akron
James and Wilson commented on Akron Law’s recruitment efforts; both discussed the importance of communicating the school’s assets to potential students.
“We have enhanced offerings, added programs, and made some changes in the ways in which we attract and retain students,” James said. “We redoubled our focus on communicating our value to prospective law students. In addition to our programs and practical offerings, students have taken note of our value...strong employment outcomes and traditionally strong bar passage rates.”
Over the past few years, the school has added three new legal clinics that provide hands on learning to students, a study abroad program in Asia and a strengthened constitutional law center. The school’s building is also undergoing a major renovation project.
“We’ve been fortunate. Where other law schools are asking what do we cut, we’re adding more experiential learning opportunities and programming for our students,” Wilson said.
Wilson also indicated that he engages in direct conversations with prospective students about the school’s successes. Specifically, Wilson mentioned the school of law’s nationally recognized trial and client-counseling teams as well as its first tier placement in Above the Law’s online law school rankings.
Having attracted a large incoming class last fall, The University of Akron currently boasts the second largest law school in the state. The Ohio State University remains the largest.
Peer Institutions Comment on Enrollment
Despite downward national enrollment trends, other law schools in the state of Ohio remain optimistic about their enrollment statistics.
The University of Cincinnati College of Law experienced its own increase in incoming students last fall — its class size growing from 72 students in 2014 to 108 students in 2015. This was the school’s first increase in class size since 2010.
Mina Jefferson, chief of staff at the Cincinnati’s law school, credits the increase in enrollment with the school’s focus on career readiness. The school offers clinical and volunteer experiences and maintains an active career office that helps students obtain externships and other professional opportunities.
Jefferson also said that she informs incoming students of the value of a law degree.
“A law degree is still valuable over the lifetime of a career,” she said. “It is a degree with enduring value.”
Not all law schools in the state have managed to increase enrollment.
Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law has experienced a decrease in applicants since 2010.
Last fall, Cleveland-Marshall welcomed an incoming class of 110 students. Lee Fisher, interim dean of the law school, said it is his “hope and expectation” that enrollment will be comparable in 2016.
“We’re in an age of declining enrollment, a challenging legal market and an increased need for financial scholarship support,” Fisher said. “Law schools across the country are facing serious challenges, but I remain optimistic that Cleveland-Marshall College of Law can meet these challenges by balancing the need for quality, access and opportunity.”