First-year enrollment takes serious hit at Dickinson School of Law's Carlisle campus
By Charlie Thompson and Eric Veronikis
First-year student enrollment has dropped drastically this semester at Penn State Dickinson School of Law’s Carlisle campus.
And as alarming as the more than 38 percent loss is, school officials said the fallout is symptomatic of a trend that has produced significantly fewer law school applicants nationwide.
And law schools statewide, including Widener University School of Law’s Delaware and Susquehanna Township campuses, are not immune from the problem, either.
Law school officials said numbers are declining nationally, because the economy has caught up with the legal field, creating fewer positions for graduates. And more students today believe law school is not a worthwhile investment, due to the amount of debt they must incur to earn law degrees.
Carlisle had 34 first-year students enroll this fall, down from 55 students during the fall of 2012. And while the school will not submit its official enrollment figures to the American Bar Association until early next month, Dickinson doesn’t expect the number to deviate, said Ellen Foreman, spokeswoman for the law school.
The school’s State College campus enrolled fewer students this semester, too.
But its 6 percent decline pales compared with Carlisle’s fallout. State College, which had 105 first-year students during last year’s fall semester, saw its enrollment drop to 98 this year.
Combined, the two campuses saw first-year student enrollment fall by 17.5 percent.
Carlisle’s problems could be compounded by the uncertainty created at that campus byformer Dean Phillip J. McConnaughay’s failed proposal last year to end first-year instruction there.
McConnaughay, in response to the trends, had proposed a pairing of the classes at Penn State, to include the elimination of future first-year instruction at Carlisle.
After strong pushback from alumni and Carlisle community leaders, many of whom argued that Penn State was reneging on a commitment to maintain a full program at Dickinson’s original campus, McConnaughay reverted to the split campus proposal.
Two accreditations, not one
“The purpose of the separate accreditation is to address the declining enrollment issues, giving each campus the ability to market itself and accredit itself,” she said.
Barry Currier, who directs the ABA’s law school accreditation process, confirmed last week that Penn State has submitted an application to gain separate accreditations for its two law campuses.
That process is ongoing, and will pick up with the first of possibly several site visits later this fall.
Until a final determination is made, the schools are expected to continue operating under the joint accreditation awarded to Penn State’s unified campus.
“It’s obviously toward the beginning of that process,” Currier said.
Foreman said she does not expect the two schools to operate under their own accreditations until the fall 2015 semester.
Currier declined comment when asked if the shrinkage at Carlisle would complicate the accreditation process, though ABA officials separately have noted there is no specific number of students or staff required by the ABA.
What the examiners will be looking for at Carlisle and State College, Currier said, is more of a quality assurance that each school will meet all of the educational requirements for a Juris Doctor degree, with the attendant library and other support services.
Earlier this year, meanwhile, the Carlisle faculty said they would support seeking a separate accreditation on three conditions:
- That the separation not take effect until both law campuses receive a full accreditation from the ABA;
- That the school have its own dean with reporting lines to the provost, Penn State’s top academic officer;
- That the Carlisle campus’ budget be built on small classes to give it a chance to begin its independent life with high enrollment standards.
What is obvious is that the contraction of the traditional legal education market — the issue that McConnaughay said was the driving force behind his efforts to retool the law school — is continuing.
According to numbers from the Law School Admissions Council, nationally, the number of law school applicants for the class starting this fall fell 12.3 percent from 2012, to 59,426.
By contrast, law schools heard from 100,600 applicants in 2004, the high-water mark over the past decade.
Total law school applications - most individuals apply to multiple schools - dropped even more steeply last year, by 17.9 percent, to a total of 385,368. That’s also a drop of more than 36 percent from the recent high of 602,300 applications received by schools in 2010.
Discouraged by debt
James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement in Washington, D.C., attributes some of the decline in applicants and applications to a weak job market for new lawyers in the wake of the 2007-08 recession, all played out against the backdrop of a relatively new national conversation about the student loan debt being racked up for higher education generally.
"I do think people at this point are more reluctant to borrow to go to school than they used to be," said Leipold, adding that may show up disproportionately for graduate schools.
In the legal profession, in particular, he noted, "the job market has been very weak since the recession set in, and there's been no shortage of publicity about that."
Ups and downs at Widener
He and other experts said they are still waiting to see where the bottom is.
Widener University saw its first-year enrollment drop from 468 during the fall of 2011, to 316 this year. That figure includes full- and part-time students. And Like Dickinson, Widener has yet to submit its final enrollment numbers to the ABA this semester.
Widener believes its numbers fit in with what is happening nationally, and that the problem is cyclical.
Juris Doctorate "admissions have experienced ups and downs in the past, and while the challenge is significant, we firmly believe in the value of a law degree, and its long-term appeal for a professional career in government work, public service work, compliance work, academic work and corporate work,” said Mary Allen, Widener spokeswoman.
Shrinkage welcome at Duquesne
Similar to McConaughay’s attempt, Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University School of Law has made it a point to shrink its program as enrollment has declined.
Duquesne enrolled about 200 first-year students five years ago. This fall, first-year enrollment has fallen to about 140, said Ken Gormley, dean of the law school.
“Like all law schools, we have experienced downturn in applicants and enrollment, but we have tried to manage it carefully and intelligently. In the past two years, we worked with president of the university to gradually shrink the entering class so we don’t do any harm to the program,” Gormley said.
Like Dickinson, Duquesne has refused to lower its enrollment standards to fill seats.
Duquesne welcomed some of its shrinkage, because enrolling 200 students was “too big and we knew it,” Gormley said.
The school's firs-year enrollment of about 140 students this year is consistent with last year's figure, he said.
“I believe some of this is a re-alignment of the legal profession itself, and most of that is driven by technology itself. Just like newspapers are faced with a dramatic change in the world by technology, and law hasn’t been impacted as dramatically, but it isn’t impervious to these changes,” Gormley said.
“I don’t think there is a need for less lawyers, but I do think how graduates are going to be practicing is going to be changing.”