The Surge Continues: Surprising Trends For This Year's Law School Applicants

Law School Admissions | LSAT Prep | prelaw

Recently, there has been much discussion on this blog concerning the state of flux we find ourseHarvardlawschoollves in with respect to the number of LSAT administrations and law school applications. After five years of declining numbers (2010-2015) followed by two years of anemic growth (2015-2017), LSAT administrations are up significantly throughout the 2017-2018 cycle. Following another big test in February, total administered LSAT’s were up 18.1% over last year. That’s the largest year over year jump since 2001-2002.

This numerical explosion is even more shocking considering the head winds blowing against these LSAT numbers. In just the past two years, many law schools have begun accepting the GRE as a substitute for the LSAT for admission. Secondly, the United States has experienced a generally strong (or at the very least growing) economy for the past eight LSAT cycles. Normally, LSAT numbers tend to run inversely with economic numbers: a growing economy causes LSAT numbers to contract, or at least grow slowly, while economic slowdowns tend to cause numbers to climb. Since the bottom of the recession in 2009-2010, that trend has held…until this year. The economy is still hot, yet LSAT numbers have turned around in a big way.

Meanwhile, early returns suggest (not surprisingly) that law school applications are also up this year in conjunction with this increase in LSAT administrations. According to LSAC, the number of applicants to ABA Accredited schools is up 8.5% compared to this point in the cycle last year (through April 8). These numbers are still preliminary since some applications are still coming in. But by this time last year, over 85% of the ultimate total number of applications had been submitted. So, it is unlikely these numbers change much by the time all is said and done.

But where is this increase coming from? Is this growth balanced across all applicants or are some demographic groups driving it more than others?

A closer look at the most recent data shows some surprising details about this year’s applicants. For one, the jump in applicants is not consistent across LSAT score bands. Not even remotely. This year, the growth rate is significantly higher among high LSAT scores than among low scores.  The number of applicants with a score below 140 is actually down 2.5% this year over last year. Meanwhile, applicants with scores in the 140’s (140-149) and 150’s (150-159) have both posted modest growth rates of 1.8% and 5.7%, respectively. But the real story here comes at the highest scores. The number of applicants with scores in the 160’s is up 20.5% year over year while those with a 170 or above are up a whopping 25.5%.

While this year has seen a growth in both male and female applicants, there has been a more marked growth among female applicants.  So far, the number of female applicants has grown by 9.8% since last year while male applicants have increased by only 6.9%. Although this is not a huge disparity, it has increased the female dominated gender gap among applicants by another 1%, up from a female/male split of approximately 53.5%/46.5% (7% difference) last year at this time to roughly a 54%/46% (8% difference) this year.

And the Trump Bump? Well, it’s hard to find data that definitively points to this, but there are some indicators. For one, the number of applicants from states Donald Trump carried in the 2016 Presidential Election is up only 6.34% so far from last year, compared to an 11.03% jump among the “Blue” states in that election. When looking at just the four largest states for law school applicants (California, Texas, New York and Florida), the two Blue states, California and New York, have seen growth rates of 13.65% and 9.3%, respectively, over last year. The two Red states, Texas and Florida, have seen growth rates of only 4.27% and 2.00%. Just for context, California’s jump represents nearly 800 of the almost 4000 additional applicants so far this year, while Florida represents only 70. (These four states combined for almost 40% of total law school applicants last year).

Regionally, the numbers appear to be more uniform. Growth rates are above 10% and thus above the overall average in the Plains states (with some exceptions), Mountain West, New England and California. The Midwest (Great Lakes region) and Mid-Atlantic states are currently running near the 8.5% overall average. However, the South Central and Southeast regions (defined by LSAC as Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina) are well below the average so far with an increase of only 2.8%. In fact, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama have even seen declines since last year.

In addition to looking at next year’s applicant numbers, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the schools those LSAT numbers are coming from. Every year, LSAC publishes a list of the Top 240 Feeder Schools for ABA Accredited law schools. This list includes the 240 schools that contribute the most students to each year’s entering law school classes, as well as LSAT and GPA statistics for students who completed their undergraduate degrees from that feeder school. Combined, these 240 feeder schools contributed nearly 80% of the students entering ABA law schools in 2017-2018. In fact, the Top 25 schools on this list alone contributed roughly 23%. Note: The following data is for the current first year class at ABA law schools. The application numbers and LSAT data discussed above will apply to next year’s incoming first year students. The Feeder School data for next year’s class is not currently available. Focusing upon these Top 25 schools shows some interesting statistics:

  • The Top 25 Feeder Schools represented approximately 4% of the total admitted applicants in 2017-2018. This is up from approximately 22.67% during the 2016-2017 academic year.
  • The #1 largest feeder school for 2017-2018 was the University of Florida (635 students). This should not come as too much of a shock as, like most of the schools at the top of this list, the University of Florida has one of the biggest undergraduate enrollments in the nation.
  • UCLA (625 students) dropped to #2 for this academic year, after being #1 for the previous two years.
  • Speaking of Florida…the state boasted five schools in the Top 15 for 2017-2018 (and 4 of the Top 7): #1 University of Florida, #3 Florida State University, #6 Florida International University, #7 University of Central Florida, and #15 University of South Florida. Interestingly, the two schools with mean LSAT scores above 151, the University of Florida (156.03) and Florida State University (153.67) both saw significant growth over the past two years. Meanwhile, the three schools with mean LSAT scores below 151, FIU (147.54), UCF (149.59), and USF (150.01), all saw declines.
  • Perhaps most surprising, the largest drop over the past two years amongst the Top 25 schools was #20, the University of Southern California. USC experienced an 33% drop from 360 students in 2015-2016 to 294 students in 2017-2018. It is also worth noting that USC had one of the more competitive mean LSAT scores (158.94) among the Top 25 schools.
  • The biggest gain? That award goes to THE Ohio State University, who moved into #10 on this year’s list on the back of an 18.82% gain over the past two years (340 in 2015-2016 to 404 in 2017-2018).
  • Among the Top 25 Feeder Schools, #11 University of Michigan had the highest mean LSAT score (160.48), edging out #5 University of California – Berkeley (159.44) and George Washington University (159.09).
  • The lowest mean LSAT score among the Top 25 was the #21 John Jay College of Criminal Justice – CUNY (144.35) followed by FIU and UCF mentioned above.

 

What makes much of this movement over the past two years so interesting, is that it is happening against the backdrop of fairly stagnant numbers overall. In fact, over the past year, the number of admitted applicants to ABA Accredited law schools actually dropped 1.3% from 42,800 in 2016-2017 to 42,300 in 2017-2018. But these stagnant numbers really precede the surge in LSAT administrations we’ve seen during the current LSAT cycle and the apparent surge so far in law school applications that has followed (again, the final numbers on applications for the 2018-2019 academic year while trending higher so far, are not final).

It will be interesting to see next year’s adjustments to these Feeder School numbers, as the forces that have driven LSAT numbers and applications higher so far this year start to drive the number of law students higher in 2018-2019. Where will those gains come from? Will the strong showing amongst Florida’s undergraduate institutions continue in spite of the anemic 2.0% growth in the number of applicants from the state of Florida overall? Will the relatively weak showing from USC and UCLA in 2017-2018 continue or will their numbers surge with the state of California? Only time (and some updated statistics) will tell.


 

Image credit: "Langdell Library, Harvard Law School" by Richard Howe