Whittier College, a small liberal arts school
in Orange County somewhere in the Los Angeles-area megapolis (edit: apparently only the law school is in Orange County; the original college is in LA County; thanks to commenter rea for the correction] most famous for once upon a time enhancing Richard Nixon’s pre-existing human capital, announced yesterday that it wasn’t going to enroll a new law school class this fall. This in effect means the school is closing once its current students graduate.
Whittier is the first unambiguous ABA law school closure since the law school crisis started to really get rolling about five years ago. (Indiana Tech announced a few months ago that it was closing its fledgling operation, but the school came into existence in 2013, so that doesn’t exactly count. Also, Hamline University unloaded its law school onto the free-standing William Mitchell Law School in a “merger” that was a de facto closure — Mitchell/Hamline as its now known is no larger than Mitchell used to be by itself).
What’s interesting about this development is that, financially speaking, Whittier doesn’t seem to be in significantly worse shape than the average ABA law school. I just finished a study that estimates the average non-elite (non-top 10ish) law school saw an approximately 35% decline in total tuition revenue between 2011 and 2015. The number for Whittier? 38.9%. Whittier cut its effective tuition per student by 6.85% during this time frame, which is half the rate at which the average non-elite law school slashed actual per student tuition. (Almost all law schools outside of the elites depend on tuition for the vast majority of their self-generated operating revenues).
So why is Whittier closing? The answer seems straightforward: its parent institution decided it wasn’t going to subsidize it any longer. Whittier College is a small school: law students make up more than 20% of the total campus enrollment of around 2,200. It has a modest but actually sort of decent endowment for a small liberal arts college — $90 million, i.e., the same as Sarah Lawrence. But obviously it isn’t some sprawling operation that can afford to subsidize a money-losing law school more or less indefinitely.
Leaving aside the financial nitty gritty, Whittier really shouldn’t have continued operating anyway. Its graduates who were first time takers of the California bar last July racked up a 22% passage rate. A total of 30 of 141 2015 graduates of the school had full-time long-term employment requiring bar passage (aka an actual legal job, broadly defined) ten months after graduation, and five of those people were employed by the school itself. The 89% of 2016 graduates with law school debt took out an average of $179,056 in federal loans while in law school, which means that with accrued interest and origination fees they had well over $200,000 in law school debt alone at graduation.
The school reduced its full time faculty from 41 to 31 over the past five years, but per its tax filings it had several law faculty making more than $200,000 per year, which is frankly absurd for a school in its financial situation. Indeed the only people among the dozen highest paid employees on campus who weren’t central administrators were six law professors (To be fair, this particular sort of absurdity remains rampant among low-ranked law schools with terrible employment and bar passage numbers).
Anyway, as imitation is the sincerest form of academic administration, it will be interesting to see how many other central administrations now feel emboldened to make similar decisions.