Opening a satellite campus in Alaska. Offering a law degree in two years instead of three. Enticing more top-tier out-of-state students with in-state tuition.
The number of students applying to law school is plummeting, and all three of Washington’s law schools are using a variety of creative ways to get more students to come to Washington to study the law.
Nationally, law-school enrollment has declined by about 23 percent over the last three years; in Washington, it’s dropped by a third.
UW Law School Dean Kellye Testy said the reasons are complicated, but she believes some reports about the cost and value of a law degree have scared off good candidates.
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There’s a lawyer “bubble” right now — more lawyers than jobs for them — but the pendulum is likely to swing back in short order, and “it comes at a time when there couldn’t be a worse access-to-justice gap in our country,” Testy said. “The number of people without legal representation is ever widening.”
On Thursday, the UW Board of Regents approved a new pilot program — somewhat similar to an existing program, but not as generous as an earlier one — to draw top-tier out-of-state students by offering them in-state tuition rates.
Seattle University, the state’s largest law school, is seeking permission from the American Bar Association to operate a satellite campus in Anchorage so SU’s Alaska students can study at home for part of the year. (Alaska is the only state without its own law school.)
And Gonzaga University, the smallest of the state’s three law schools, is offering a law degree that can be completed in two years.
In 2010, the state’s three law schools admitted an unusually large first-year law class — nearly 700 students in all. Last year, the number of first-year students admitted dropped to 482, including 146 first-year students at the UW, 228 at Seattle University and 108 at Gonzaga.
Another drop is expected this year, signaled by a national decline in the number of students who have taken the LSAT, or Law School Admissions Test.
Former deal too costly
At the UW, the biggest decline has occurred among out-of-state students, who once got a very good deal for choosing to be Huskies.
For six years starting in 2005, the UW attracted top candidates because it allowed out-of-state graduate and professional students to apply for in-state tuition after the first year, saving those students tens of thousands of dollars during their years at the UW. (Professional degrees include law and medical degrees.)
That deal “used to be pretty well-known, and it was very attractive,” Testy said. “But maybe it’s more of a luxury than we can afford now. And to some degree, we worried about the fairness of it.”
The program was eliminated in 2010 because it was more expensive than anticipated, attracting more than 360 students across several professional schools and graduate programs and costing the university about $4.6 million a year in lost revenue.
In 2011, the university began offering in-state tuition to about 45 out-of-state students who had top grades and test scores. That included eight students in the law school.
Under the new pilot program approved Thursday, the law school could offer more than eight tuition waivers if it had more than eight outstanding candidates, Testy said.
Because Washington state isn’t very demographically diverse, the waivers — by attracting more out-of-state-candidates — will help the law school draw a more diverse enrollment, including more students of color and low-income students, Testy said.
Meanwhile, last month Seattle University submitted an application to the ABA for a satellite campus that would allow Alaskan students to spend summers and their entire third year in their home state. The Alaska Court System would let the law school use its courtroom for evening and weekend classes and provide access to the law library.
Gonzaga will offer a law degree in two years, starting this fall; it’s doing so by eliminating summer break.
“We call it the same education, less vacation,” said spokeswoman Andrea Parrish. “It’s the same number of credits and instructional hours, you just take it in six terms over two years.”
The UW’s old waiver program attracted students who could have gone to Ivy League law schools but chose the UW instead because it was such a good deal, said Sarah Reyneveld, who graduated from the UW law school in 2011. It also helped the school attract more students of color, she said.
Reyneveld served that year as president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS), the arm of student government that serves those students. It fought unsuccessfully to keep the tuition waivers for all graduate and professional students, then pushed for the pilot program that replaced it. Although she didn’t directly benefit because she was an in-state student, “I was definitely a beneficiary of a very diverse student population,” Reyneveld said.
This year, in-state law-school students at the UW pay $30,819 in tuition. Out-of-state students pay about $13,000 more.
Current GPSS President Chris Lizotte said the GPSS supports anything that helps fund graduate and professional students and helps the university recruit high-quality applicants.
“The UW has this sort of double identity — in one sense, it’s there to educate Washington residents, and on the other it’s a world-class university that draws from across the country and across the world,” he said. “Any kind of long-reaching strategy to keep that world-class reputation, and world-class image and quality, can only benefit the state.”
Jerry Baldasty, senior vice provost for academic and student affairs, emphasized that the new pilot program is expected to increase total enrollment and will not displace any Washington students.
Because it will be bringing in new revenue, it will make money for the university, Baldasty said.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.