Law dean says University of Iowa chose program quality over tuition dollars

Total enrollment for 2013 also at lowest in recent years

March 28, 2014 | 9:44 pm

The 2013 incoming class at the University of Iowa College of Law is the smallest in recent history, with 94 students. Dean Gail Agrawal says the university has chosen quality over size — even if the result is tuition loss.  

Iowa and some other states in the Midwest have been insulated from the law school fallout that began in 2008, Agrawal said. But as she told alumni in a letter sent out in August, it was inevitable the college would follow the national trend, based on the overall declining job market and too many law graduates for too few jobs.

This year’s total enrollment also is at the lowest in recent years, with 427 students, compared to 526 in 2012 and 563 in 2011, according to UI statistics.

The incoming class size has decreased in the past three years, from 203 in 2010 to 155 last year, before the big drop this fall to 94.  

“We’ve had a modest decline in the last few years, but we were expecting it to happen at some point,” Agrawal explained. “Each school is making different decisions how to handle this.”

The law school didn’t change or lower admission standards just to increase enrollment, she said.

“Maintaining the quality of the student body was the most important,” Agrawal said.

The UI’s drop in applications also mirrors the national trend, going from 1,872 in 2010 to 792 in 2012. According to the Law School Admission Council, applications in law schools across the country for the entering classes of 2013 were down 36 percent compared to 2010.

Last year, first-year enrollments fell 8.5 percent nationwide, and law schools outside the elite top tier had even sharper declines, according to the American Bar Association.

Drake Law School in Des Moines also experienced the drop in applications and enrollment this fall, said Kara Blanchard, director of admissions and financial aid.

It saw 595 applicants in 2013, a 31 percent drop from 873 last year. This fall’s incoming class is 113, compared to 126 in 2012.

Despite the enrollment decline, the UI has remained among the top 10 public law schools in the last five years and ranks 26 this year, according to the annual U.S. News and World Report’s Best Law Schools list. Last year the college was No. 29.

In 2011, it ranked at No. 27, and at 26 in 2009 and 2010. 

The college also is above the national average for job placement rates of graduates. In 2012, the UI was at 94 percent, compared with the national average of 82 percent, according to UI statistics.  

Many schools are making up for the tuition loss by cutting faculty or offering early retirements. But Agrawal said no cuts or layoffs have been made.

There are some open administrative staff positions, such as secretaries and a part-time communication person, that will be left vacant, but the college will hire an admissions director, which is a new position.

“The university deals with a number of revenue and cost swings each year during the budget process,” P. Barry Butler, UI executive vice-president and provost, said last week. “When activity in any one area is down, collegiate and university leaders take steps to assess the nature of the change and determine whether or not the institution can do anything to mitigate its effects.”

Butler said this also occurred in the 1990s when enrollment “dramatically” fell in business classes. But instead of making sweeping budget cuts, officials explored ways to bring in students.

This decision led to the creation of a successful MBA for Professionals and Managers, which now enrolls close to 1,000 students across the state. 

Butler said it was too early to say if the law school has a similar successful outcome, but officials will explore all opportunities.

Agrawal said one way the college is bringing resources into the college, as Butler mentioned, is to have law professors teach non-law students in classes such as Constitutional Law and Intellectual Property Law, which is offered in the MBA program.

In addressing the school debt issue, Agrawal said the college has increased it scholarships and offers loan assistant repayment plans. But the solution can’t come from individual law schools — it has to have government response, he said. 

The college will offer an accelerated program next fall, as a way to shave off a year’s tuition for students. Highly qualified juniors will be allowed to start law school in their senior year.

The seniors would receive their bachelor’s degree after the first year of law school. This program is approved by the UI, and Agrawal and others will be meeting with other universities in the state this year to gain their cooperation.

Guy Cook, Des Moines lawyer and Iowa State Bar Association president, said it’s difficult to have options to reduce costs for students because the American Bar Association, which sets accreditation, requires they attend school for 24 months. He supports the UI and Drake for offering accelerated programs to help reduce student debt.

Cook, as bar president, was instrumental in setting up a blue ribbon committee on legal education and licensing, which includes law school deans and lawyers across the state. They will look at a wide variety of issues, including core curriculum, student debt, length of law school, clinical programs and the bar exam.

The committee's first meeting will be this coming Monday.

Agrawal said the UI also will offer a new field placement program that allows students to spend up to a semester in professional settings across the country. Some new or expanded Juris Doctorate and LL.M or masters of law degree programs were added this fall, and a new doctoral-level research degree, Doctorate of Juridical Sciences or SJD, will start next fall when the accreditation process is completed.

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