Preliminary ABA figures show that entering JD class size fell 9% at ABA-accredited schools in the fall of 2012. The fall 2012 enrollment of 44,481 students was 15% lower than the historic high of 52,488 students enrolled in the fall of 2010. This year’s JD entering class is the lowest recorded since 2000, when 43,518 students began their first-year studies.
Some of this attrition was planned. The University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, for example, announced a class-size reduction as part of a comprehensive strategic plan. Other reductions were ad hoc, as schools struggled to find sufficient students after a rapid decline in applications.
We’re deep into another year of declining applications, and many schools are considering both their fall 2013 enrollment and their longer term plans. Entering class size plays an important role in any law school budget or strategic plan. What are the benefits and costs of reducing class size? I list below the considerations I’ve heard from faculty, students, and practitioners around the country.
Please add your thoughts in the comments; I will post an updated list after hearing your feedback. Rather than think through this issue in isolation, we can pool some of our insights here. The right approach for individual schools, of course, may vary widely. But what are the factors for schools to weigh?
Benefits of Reducing Class Size
1. Schools should adjust class size in accordance with the job market. Some observers advance this principle as a moral one, arguing that schools should not charge students for expensive degrees that they know their graduates will have difficulty using. Others adopt a pragmatic approach, noting that informed consumers follow the market: If fewer jobs are available, then fewer students will apply to law school. The market will reduce class sizes for schools, and they might as well adopt a pro-active stance.
2. As applications fall, a reduced class size may be essential to preserve the quality of the student body. Student quality affects classroom instruction, peer interaction, graduate quality, the school’s reputation, and–last but far from least–U.S. News ranking.
3. A reduced class size can improve instructional quality, extracurricular activities, and other aspects of the law school experience. Reducing class size, for example, will allow a school to offer clinical spots to a larger percentage of the class. Similarly, a higher percentage of students may be able to join journals, compete on moot court teams, enroll in popular seminars or simulations, interact closely with faculty, and find mentors among graduates.
4. Reducing class size might improve a school’s U.S. News ranking on several metrics. In addition to maintaining the credentials of entering students, a reduced class size usually will improve a school’s JD acceptance rate, student/faculty ratio, and expenditures per student. Down the road, a reduced class size may also improve placement success and bar passage rates. The change might also improve reputation among members of the bar, if those respondents perceive the action as improving the quality of a school’s graduates or as a responsible action on the school’s part.
5. If other schools reduce class size, then reductions may be necessary simply to keep up with those schools on the U.S. News metrics described above.
6. On-line instruction is advancing rapidly. As these programs improve, schools may be able to maintain a wide selection of courses–even with a smaller number of enrolled students and full-time faculty. To distinguish themselves in an on-line world, in fact, schools may need to offer many more hands-on courses featuring extensive interaction with faculty. Reducing class size now will prepare schools for that shift.
7. Reduced class sizes may allow schools to focus on the education that practitioners and students consider essential: hands-on experience in problem solving, counseling, writing, and the other tasks that form the core of law practice.
Costs of Reducing Class Size
1. If a school reduces class size but maintains its current budget, then tuition will rise for other students. Tuition and graduate debt already are too high. Increasing these burdens further may be professionally irresponsible (as argued by some observers) or counter-productive (if students choose cheaper schools or other career options).
2. Schools may not be able to provide as many educational opportunities to a smaller student base. Some seminars and smaller classes may fail to draw sufficient enrollment. Some student journals, moot court teams, and extracurricular activities may also lack sufficient participation.
3. This fall-off in participation may disproportionately affect newer additions to the law school curriculum. Students, for example, may continue to participate in appellate moot court teams–which have a long pedigree at most schools. They may under-subscribe counseling competitions, transactional meets, and other newer programs that would provide better educational value if they had a chance to gain acceptance.
4. Reducing enrollment is likely to reduce the number of minority, first-generation, and low-income students admitted to law school. Even if the percentages of those students remain steady, their absolute numbers will decrease. Should schools cut back on enrollment while these groups are still seeking access to the profession? Will smaller absolute numbers of students in these categories affect their critical mass? If these issues are a concern, will schools be able to increase the percentage of students admitted from these categories?
5. Some students, faculty, and alumni view size as strength. If a school cuts enrollment, these individuals may view the school as weak or lacking confidence in its quality compared to other schools.
6. If schools reduce class size (and their accompanying budgets), they may adjust course offerings to satisfy the tastes of tenured faculty. This may yield fewer clinics, simulations, and other experiential courses that students and practitioners find highly valuable.
7. No matter its size, every law school class has a bottom half, third, quarter, and ten percent. Reducing class size, in fact, may push more talented students into those lower ranges. If employers pay close attention to class rank–as many seem to have done in the past–then smaller class sizes may not improve employability for graduates. Even at the top of the class, fewer students will qualify for the top ten percent or top quarter.
Unknowns and Trade-Offs
1. If schools reduce size significantly (e.g., by enough to eliminate one first-year section), they may be able to reduce faculty size accordingly. The latter reduction would eliminate gains in student-faculty ratio or per-student expenditure, but it might prevent excessive tuition increases.
2. How does class size affect administrative costs? Law schools may realize economies of scale; functions like admissions, placement, and library services may be more expensive per student in a smaller school than a larger one. On the other hand, large schools may require more coordination (generating new administrative costs). It is also possible that in a smaller, less administrative-heavy organization, faculty would be more willing to take back some administrative functions.
What do you think? Please add to the discussion here: