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GU law school fights enrollment trend

Last year’s first-year class fell by 25 percent

Gonzaga law school Dean Jane Korn, seen here in 2011, has had to contend with “moderate” budget cuts during her second year in charge as fewer students opt to pursue law degrees. (File)
Gonzaga law school Dean Jane Korn, seen here in 2011, has had to contend with “moderate” budget cuts during her second year in charge as fewer students opt to pursue law degrees. (File)

Gonzaga School of Law will celebrate its 100th year with a party this weekend. But the bigger news for GU law school Dean Jane Korn on Tuesday was learning that 80 applicants have paid their $500 deposit for next fall’s first-year class.

That’s one more applicant than a year ago. While deposits don’t guarantee a person will enroll, it’s a sign of strong interest. Deposits however hold a seat for an applicant considering going to a school.

GU officials feel good about that number because a gain of one is better than a drop. Law school applications nationwide are down by more than 10 percent from last year, according to the Law School Admission Council.

Korn, in her second full year as dean, is dealing with a local version of a national trend. Law schools nationwide are seeing declines in enrollment. The factors include the rough economy, the decline in the need for legal services by corporations, fewer jobs for attorneys and the high cost of legal education.

Last fall’s first-year class at GU was down 25 percent from the year before, from 176 to 132. The Jesuit-run law school expects next fall’s enrollment to be about the same, based on the deposits received so far.

Because of the enrollment slide this year, Korn had to manage “moderate” budget cuts that included no faculty raises and leaving some administrative positions unfilled. No layoffs were required, Korn said.

The possibility that the declines may continue hasn’t left Korn discouraged. “This period may well be a defining moment for the law school,” she said, as schools like Gonzaga address the challenge of educating future attorneys more effectively while retaining and rewarding highly qualified faculty.

Over the past decade, Gonzaga administrators worked hard on tightening admissions standards and recruiting high-level faculty, in part to improve its accreditation, but also to raise its place in the annual U.S. News & World Report law school rankings.

The latest ranking has GU at No. 113, the same as one year earlier.

Korn noted that US News also said GU School of Law has the highest employment rate nine months after graduation of any law school in the Northwest.

GU law school faculty regard the annual rankings as an imprecise measure of quality. But they also know students look to the rankings to help decide where they go, said Dan Morrissey, a Gonzaga law professor and former dean of the law school.

Morrissey and other faculty say they’re concerned that a prolonged decline in enrollment might lead to dropping admissions standards, resulting in a slip in the rankings.

George Critchlow, who also teaches law at GU, said the school has to balance the desire to achieve good rankings and the ability to pay its bills.

“The dean is right to be concerned with rankings,” Critchlow said. If admissions standards drop, the quality of students entering the program starts to spiral downward.

“If you don’t address the issue, you’ll be sliding toward being marginal” compared to other law schools, Critchlow said.

Gonzaga’s tuition is considered moderate compared to many other private law schools. It’s currently $36,360, up about 3 percent from a year ago. Korn pointed out that more than 90 percent of law school students receive some form of financial aid.

The University of Washington’s current law school tuition is $28,870 for residents, $41,870 for out-of-state students. The lower cost for in-state applicants may explain why the UW law program saw barely any drop in applications, said assistant dean of admissions Mathiew Le. It enrolled 176 students last fall, compared to 182 the year before.

Le said the UW law school has received 2,600 applications for next fall’s 180 seats.

Gonzaga University President Thayne McCulloh has told Korn that if the decline in law school enrollment continues, the university will find ways to cover the shortfall.

This year Gonzaga’s law school has managed its budget in part by drawing on reserves and eliminating travel and other expenses, McCulloh said.

He added he’s hopeful that the law school is moving through a cycle in which decline is followed by growth.

Recognizing the need to help keep high-quality applicants interested, McCulloh said he’s committing a “significant” increase in financial aid to law school applicants for next fall.

The average amount of financial aid offered this year to law students at Gonzaga is roughly $12,800, according to the school website.

Still, administrators are considering raising law school tuition another 2 or 3 percent next fall, McCulloh said.

“The university is working very hard, even as we are working to keep costs down and affordable, to make legal education more affordable. Our committing to that goal is front and center for us.”

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