With declining law school enrollment and a shaky job market for attorneys, Penn State University announced Tuesday it was cutting the price for in-state students to enroll in its Dickinson School of Law by almost half.
The university's "Commonwealth Scholars" program for Pennsylvania residents offers an annual $20,000 reduction off the $41,088 tuition for in-state law school students at Penn State's Carlisle and University Park programs. It is renewable for three years, bringing the potential value to $60,000 for students.
"We have a superb academic program with some of the nation's finest classroom teachers and experiential learning opportunities," interim law dean James Houck said in a prepared statement. "Yet our research shows that some individuals are unable to take advantage of it because of cost. This program will increase access to legal education for well-qualified Pennsylvania residents who otherwise may not have considered us."
The grant is available to all prospective law school students that Penn State admits for fall 2014 enrollment, university officials said. They must be able to show that Pennsylvania is their primary residence. Grant recipients will continue to be eligible for other scholarships and need-based financial aid.
Across the nation, applications for first-year seats in law schools is off this fall by about 12 percent, according to the National Law Journal, the third straight year applications have been off.
The number of students taking the Law School Admissions Test in October was off 11 percent from a year ago and was the smallest number of students taking the test in October since 1998, according to the Law School Admission Council, which administers the exam.
Penn State has felt the sting a bit more sharply. Its first-year enrollment in Dickinson School of Law for fall is 17.5 percent below last year at 132 students, Ellen Foreman, law school spokeswoman, told the Post-Gazette in September.
The University of Pittsburgh has taken a different tack in response to the slumping law job market, reducing the number of admitted students to 175 from 211 a year ago, a 17 percent reduction. Pitt spokesman Ken Service said Tuesday that while the law school is doing more to help enrolled students, it's not planning other immediate changes.
"If the long-term demand is not there, then it makes sense to limit the supply," he said.
Law school tuition for in-state students at Pitt is $29,660, according to its website.
Penn State is hardly the first law school to reduce its tuition in response to flagging enrollment.
Earlier this year, the University of Akron School of Law announced it was changing its tuition structure, so that in-state and out-of-state students pay the same rate. The University of Cincinnati followed suit a few months later, reducing the nonresident tuition rate by 30 percent. According to the National Law Journal, the number of new students enrolling in Ohio law schools has dropped 28 percent since 2008.
"This is something we have seen more of over the past nine months," said Karen Sloan of the National Law Journal. "And if you read the tea leaves based on the most recent administration of the LSAT, I think we will see more announcements of tuition reductions."
She added it was likely that Penn State's law school enrollment decline could be attributed partly to the school's plan to separate its two campuses.
Proposed as a way to better market itself to potential students, the plan called for the Dickinson School's University Park campus to try to attract national and global applicants, offering joint degrees and joint study options with other Penn State graduate programs. The Carlisle campus, meanwhile, would target local students seeking to pursue community and public-sector law who would benefit from easier access to law firms, courts and government agencies in nearby Harrisburg.
One perhaps unintended consequence of the tuition reduction may be the lowering of Dickinson's rating in the U.S. News and World Reports rankings of best graduate programs, which Ms. Sloan noted was "huge" for law schools. One factor taken into consideration when calculating the list is how much is spent per pupil, a number affected negatively by a tuition reduction.
Dickinson ranked 64th among 218 law schools on the 2013 list.
Officials at Penn State are banking on the price reduction drawing more attention to the school's selling points. According to the university, Penn State had the highest first-time bar pass rate of law schools in the state on the July 2013 bar exam.
Ms. Sloan said if it becomes a trend, lower tuition rates may represent something of a course correction for law schools, which have seen steady tuition increases over the past 15 years, significantly higher than the rate of inflation.
At Temple University in Philadelphia, another state-related university, in-state law school tuition is $19,722, according to its website.
Joyce Gannon contributed to this report. Kim Lyons: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1241. Bill Schackner: email@example.com or 412-263-1977.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1977. Twitter: @BschacknerPG. First Published November 26, 2013 9:44 AM