45 years ago Thomas Brennan had an idea. At that time Brennan was the youngest chief justice in the history of the Michigan supreme court. Brennan already had an extensive background in Michigan law and politics: back in 1955 he was the GOP candidate in a special congressional election to replace John Dingell, Sr. Brennan, who was just 26 at the time, and had already unsuccessfully run for Congress twice, was defeated by Dingell’s son John Jr., who went on to have the longest tenure of any member of Congress in US history (he retired this year).
Brennan was something of a protege of George Romney’s, which is how he ended up on the state supreme court at the age of 37. But then he got his idea, which was to found a new law school. It was a canny move, as the first baby boomers had just started flooding into legal education, and in addition women began to attend law school in significant numbers. Enrollment exploded, nearly doubling between 1968 and 1979. Thirty new law schools were approved by the ABA between 1969 and 1980. Cooley was part of this group, starting operations in 1972 and gaining ABA accreditation in 1975 (Brennan resigned from the supreme court at the end of 1973; I’m curious regarding whether he was forced to do this as a consequence of his educational adventures).
But Cooley wasn’t just any new law school. Even though the enrollment boom ended soon after Cooley got approved (the total number of law students nationally was barely higher in 2000 than it had been twenty years earlier), Cooley grew and grew. Brennan’s ambition was to create the largest law school in the country, and by 1995 Cooley’s total JD enrollment of 1,711 had it on the verge of achieving that questionable distinction.
Cooley maintained its remarkable growth rate via a simple strategy: it made itself the law school of last resort, for applicants who were unlikely to be admitted to any other ABA school. Between 1995 and 2005 it nearly doubled in size, and did indeed become the nation’s largest law school, by a wide margin. But — and this is the part of the story that highlights how much has changed in the last decade — it would have been quite inaccurate to characterize Cooley as a quasi-open enrollment institution.
Although a large percentage of Cooley’s class was made up of people who couldn’t get into another law school, a decade ago Cooley was still rejecting almost half of its applicants. That situation has since changed drastically:
What has happened is that, especially over the past five years, applicants with credentials which would have precluded them from getting into any ABA law school, including Cooley, suddenly have found themselves with dozens of options. Until about four years ago, an applicant with a 145 LSAT score — the 27th percentile on the test — would almost certainly be rejected by every ABA school but Cooley. Today, no less than 37 ABA schools are matriculating classes in which at least a quarter of the students have an LSAT of 145 or below.
Cooley, which for reasons that will become evident had followed a long-standing policy of rarely dipping below 144 for marticulants, suddenly saw its traditional applicant pool raided by close to 20% of all ABA schools. While the total number of applicants to law school declined by 35% between 2008 and 2015, the total number of applicants to Cooley fell by no less than 80%:
Something had to give, and what gave was any semblance of admissions standards:
Despite going to a de facto open enrollment system, Cooley’s enrollment still crashed, declining by nearly two thirds over the past five years:
The school, which had prided itself for many years on its status as one of the most “affordable” private law schools in the country (until three years ago it consistently charged about 20% less than the average private law school), tried to ameliorate the fiscal damage by raising tuition by leaps and bounds, to the point where the school now charges about 10% more than the average private school:
Since essentially all the school’s revenue is in the form of tuition, the collapse in enrollment figures has led to a very steep decline in income:
(In 2009, the school’s revenue was $22.6 million greater than its expenses, meaning that, if it were a private business, it would have had earnings equal to 21% of revenues. Of course Cooley is a “non-profit,” so among other things it didn’t have to pay any taxes on that surplus).
Last summer Cooley fired nearly 60% of its full-time faculty.
What all this signifies in regard to legal education’s present and future will be the subject of another post.