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Nov. 24, 2011— Be Thankful!

Be thankful that last week gave me three more golden opportunities to speak with admissions officers – we wound up with a ton of data. 

So that’s our first piece of news; Houston attendance was down about 14%.  With the possible exception of Toronto (which was added to the tour only a year ago), every city experienced a decline in Forum attendance. 

Forum Attendance Parallels Applicant Pool

I haven't seen a total number of applicants for 2011, but there's a close correlation between Forum atendance and number of applicants in previous years. Note the one year lag -- the decline in Forum attendance in 2009 preceded a smaller applicant pool in 2010.

So why don't schools just acknowledge the decline in applicants and make decisions based on these trends? Because the reduction in applicants is offset by an increase in the number of applications per applicant.

Applicants or Applications?

As you’ve all heard (from me, at least), applicant volumes are expected to drop.  But one admissions officer pointed out that applicant volumes don’t equate with application volumes.  A generation ago, the average applicant applied to 4 schools; now that number is 6 or more.  How does that affect the game?

Ultimately, it doesn’t.  Each applicant can attend at most one law school (as a 1-L; don’t go playing Logic 101 with me). 

But “ultimately” is defined as “when the last school makes the last wait list offer pulling someone away from that other school.”  All wait-list calls should be finished by mid-September; that's why the ABA requires schools to report the number of students as of October 1. 

So through March or so, schools are making decisions based on the number of applications they’ve received.  Many schools are seeing an increase in applications, simply because applicants are applying to more schools. Each school is trying to be the lucky winner of the guy with the higher LSAT score. [Yes, "guy." LSAT scores correlate with gender; the men get higher scores. GPAs also correlate, with women getting the higher numbers. But schools want to buy LSATs, since LSAT is 12.5% of a US News ranking, while GPA is only 10%. I wrote all about it over here.]

Then, as seat deposit deadlines come due, the number of applicants controls, especially in an economy in which applicants can’t afford to pay multiple deposits. So the wealthier get to buy the privilege of moving off a wait list and forfeiting earlier deposits, and the poorer can’t.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that wealth will buy a better education or a better job; more often it will buy something silly like a better selection of bars for Friday night.  Most people are praying for a seat off the waitlist in New York or DC instead of staying  in Iowa City or Buffalo.  And people who can’t afford to throw away seat deposits might be happier with the cost of living in Bloomington and Columbus. So the poorer folks won’t necessarily get a worse deal, but they may feel the disappointment of having to drop out of the game when others can afford to play.

Applications per applicant

The change in application volumes is complicated by its lack of uniformity.

VBariation in application volumes at different schools

This data from earlier in the decade shows that an average decrease in applications of 10% can include a school that has a 40% decrease and another that has a 100% increase. Gary tried to gather data in New York,and I tried in Houston, but that pesky little upturn in 2010 before the downturn in 2011 made it virtually impossible to track trends.

Then I started digging really deep into my old data, and found out, to my chagrin, that I lost another bet with Dennis Shields. Dean Shields, who is now the Chancellor at The University of Wisconsin-Platteville, was Dean of Admissions at Duke in 2002. Quoting from my archived web page of 2006:

 In August of '02, I discussed rising application volumes with Dennis Shields.  He said that we're putting way too much emphasis on the economy as the cause of the current increase in apps, and overlooking the increase in college applicants.  "What increase?"  I asked. (I've never been afraid to show my ignorance to admissions officers; they know they know more than I do.)  He pointed out that the baby boomers of the 50s, who caused a huge surge in college enrollments in the 70s, are now grandparents.  Their children's children are in college and law school.  For the last several years, college enrollment has been increasing by 250,000 a year, and should continue to do so for the next several years.  That should cause an increase of 10% or so a year in law school applications for the next five years! The chart below should help:

Fluctuations in college and law school attendance as a result of birth rates

Dennis predicted a downturn in applicants beginning in 2008 or 2009, and it looks like he was right again. I'll be sure to drop him a line and let him know I lost the bet we made in 2002.

So despite the confusion caused by each applicant's applying to more schools, all the indications are for a decline in applicants. The only question is how soon law schools will know what to do.

You Tell Us!

Fewer people took the LSAT – 18% fewer in June and 16% fewer in October.  So we won’t know for sure what’s happening until we see the results of the December (and perhaps February and June) LSATs.  The admissions officers and I discussed three possible outcomes:

  • People apply with lower scores, because they know they can’t get a job, so they have to stay in school.  In this case, there will be chaos on the admissions officers’ part; they won’t know who’s admitting whom, and may offer incentives for early commitment just to buy a modicum of certainty.
  • People apply but inform the law schools that they plan to retake.  This causes a different kind of chaos, the kind that students experience when they have three term papers due in one week.  Schools are holding hundreds of incomplete files, making fewer offers of admissions in the hope of having empty seats if those magical higher scores materialize.  In January (for schools with Feb. 1 deadlines) or March (for those with April deadlines), they get a bunch of new scores, and have to make fast decisions – fast enough to allow you time to decide, and fast enough to convince you that they’re the right school for you.
    • And what happens to schools with March deadlines?  They have to decide whether to accept February scores, hoping for that same magic score, or to base their class on what they’ve got, trading certainty for the perhaps slight chance of a median that’s a point higher. 
  • People choose not to apply this year; law schools wait until the last minute, extend deadlines, aggressively pursue applicants through Law Service’s Candidate Referral Service (or, in technical jargon, the LSAC CRS), and end up where I predicted after the June Forum:  down a point at the top, a point or two in the middle, and two or three points at the bottom.

So we won’t know what’s happening until you decide.  If you apply with lower scores, many law schools will just have to admit people with lower scores.  If you retake after December, no one will know what’s happening until April or May.  And since each of you individually has no idea what the other applicants are doing, late will turn into later.  I wouldn’t plan to be out of reach this summer; offers will happen abruptly, unpredictably, and with small windows of opportunity.  If you’re not reachable on the day the schools calls, they may well move onto the next person on the list. 

And for my clients?  I’m going to advise them to choose a school early and let the other 75,000 people fight for the handful of spots on the wait list. 

The “Illinois Effect”

I may not be the first person to feel this, but I believe I’m the first to name it.  It’s the result of having a really sincere person give you a really honest-sounding answer, along with a virtuous aphorism about the value of truth.  Then, six months or a year later, you find out you’ve been suckered bigtime.  Then, a few weeks after the knowledge that you were suckered, someone else gives you an answer that puzzles you.  And you find yourself wondering, “Are they playing games too?”

Betrayal leaves scars.  It transforms a sense of camaraderie into one of skepticism.  It takes the joy out of reunions and the ability to joke out of conversations. 

So how to cope?  For me, the answer is to stop asking silly questions about medians and other ranking-related issues.  For now, the only question I need answered is, “does my client have a reasonable shot?”

That also means there will be no other news about purported ups and downs.  To compensate, I’ve crunched some LSAC data for you. I'll see what I can learn from my archives and report anecdotes.  So poke your head back in a week after the December LSAT for some gossip.  But don’t expect any news on whose apps are up or down, what a school’s medians are, or whether you have a chance at school X.  I’ve put them into the same category as Elvis sightings and long-form birth certificates.

Happy Thanksgiving – or at least enjoy the turkey!


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