Between 1976 and 2000, law schools steadily enrolled between ~40,000 and ~44,000 new students each year. From 1976 to 1987, the average was 40,973. From 1988 to 2000, the average was 43,497—a little over 6% higher. But between 2000 and 2002, law schools increased first-year enrollment 11.2%. In subsequent years, enrollment steadily creeped up, with minor ebbs and flows, until peaking in 2010 at 52,404. As law schools were pressured to become more transparent about job outcomes beginning in 2010, the media and prospective law students took notice of inflated enrollment, inadequate job prospects, and high prices—and enrollment dropped. After 1L enrollment peaked in 2010 at 52,404 new students, enrollment fell dramatically in each of the next three years, which was then followed by four years of even lower, but steady, enrollment between 37,000 and 38,000 new 1Ls. Then in 2018, following a modest increase in demand for law school, 1L enrollment increased by 2.7% (992 students).
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Declining enrollment may provide advantages for prospective law students. Fewer applicants mean it is easier to get into a more prestigious school. With law schools competing to attract qualified applicants, strong students have more generous scholarship offers. At graduation, lower enrollment means fewer graduates to compete with for entry-level jobs. For law schools, however, drastically lower enrollment spells financial trouble when they cannot quickly shed costs or raise revenue, whether through tuition increases, fundraising, borrowing, or non-JD program revenue.
A law school that faces an unplanned or unwanted drop in first-year enrollment will feel the financial effect for three (or four) years. When first-year enrollment falls in sequential years, those effects multiply. Today, overall JD enrollment is the lowest it's been in over 40 years. To say the least, law schools are facing incredible financial pressure—especially as the average price paid declines.
But some of that financial pressure has been relieved at some law schools by growth of non-JD programs, whether post-JD programs, masters-level programs aimed at non-lawyers, or certificate programs. Between 1999 and 2006, non-JD enrollment was steady, averaging ~7500 students. In each year since 2006, non-JD enrollment has increased, with the pace accelerating in the past few years, after law schools had some time to create tuition-bearing programs. Value commensurate with price aside, tuition paid by these students offset costs associated with maintaining JD programs.
About the Data
Enrollment data come from the American Bar Association. All Non-JD totals were computed by the ABA. Total JD enrollment totals before 2011 were computed by the ABA, but the totals in 2011 or later later were totaled by LST, which aggregates individual school JD enrollment as reported by the ABA. First-year enrollment totals before 2010 were computed by the ABA, but the totals in 2010 or later later were totaled by LST, which aggregates individual school first-year enrollment as reported by the ABA.