BROOKLAND — The atrium is likely to reverberate with fewer echoes in coming years as CUA Law scales back in an effort to adapt to a legal education market that has seen steep drops in enrollment and tuition revenues here and across the country.
After enrolling 38-percent fewer 1Ls this year and losing an unusually large number of transfer students to area schools, CUA Law officials have been forced to consider additional cuts to low-attendance adjunct courses and staff positions as a way to help stabilize the budget.
“We’re in a market where there are three very large law schools with higher rankings, to be honest,” George Garvey, acting dean of the law school, said in an interview last week. “It seemed that our best way to address the issues we’re facing was to opt to become more like we once were: a smaller law school that maintains the quality of the student body at a level that’s acceptable and appropriate for us, and good for the student.”
Garvey said the law school will shift from a “relatively large” to a “relatively small” law school and is likely to admit smaller classes than it has in recent years, which appears to align with a national trend that shows a decline of more than 20,000 law school applications since the fall of 2010, according to the Law School Admissions Council.
This year’s incoming class slid to 87 day students and 57 night students from 234 total 1Ls in fall 2011, with 1L enrollment at the law school dropping by nearly 50-percent since the 2010 incoming class matriculated more than 200 day students. School officials emphasized that admissions standards have remained constant amid the demographic shifts.
Garvey said changes at CUA Law would not occur “precipitously” and aim to keep the school’s overall academic quality intact. But the transition is likely to inflict some institutional pain, he added.
“Where we’re at right now is an institution that was set up to educate something over 800 students. We’re dropping down to 620 something,” he said. “So there will be changes. And some will be painful probably institutionally. Some will be less so because we’ve got time to anticipate.”
Current students already are feeling some effects of the cutbacks. Nine fewer elective courses were offered this semester compared to this time last year, and the law school declined to renew some adjunct professors’ contracts, according to faculty sources.
As broad economic trends continue to shape CUA Law, the school also faces a unique challenge as a regional competitor vying to retain enrolled students whose decisions are often influenced by U.S. News and World Report rankings. Among rising 2Ls, 52 students transferred this summer – primarily to higher-ranked area law schools – representing an enrollment ebb only partially offset by 10 inbound transfers.
“I lost almost half my 1L section,” a current 2L said recently of the transferees.
School officials and faculty members who discussed this year’s enrollment figures expressed disappointment and surprise over the volume of transfers, with George Washington University Law School receiving more than 20 students — the bulk of transferees who left CUA Law after their 1L year.
“There typically are some transfers in and transfers out, and there have been growing trend toward that. But this year was dramatic. It was a sea change,” Garvey said. “The number of students that we lost was larger than certainly I was anticipating.”
As the law school’s yearlong budgeting process gets under way, another financial question is whether law school tuition will rise in response to the dramatically reduced revenues.
Asked about this side of the ledger, Garvey noted the university and not the law school determines tuition decisions, but said he would advocate against another tuition hike.
“I will request that the university do everything possible to keep our costs either flat, or at the very least if it has to go up,” he said. “I would love to be able to get a commitment to keep tuition flat for several years.”