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Is Hamline Law School on its last legs?

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The Wall Street Journal has a story today about law schools shrinking faculties via attrition, buyouts, and layoffs, in the face of the continuing slide in applicants (over the past three years total applicants to ABA schools have declined from 88,000 to around 59,000, and total number of LSAT takers for last month’s test was down yet again).

One school the story discussed was Hamline:

Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minn., for example, has shrunk its full-time faculty about 18% since 2010, and the school is exploring ways to further scale back its head count. Ten faculty members have retired since the school began offering early-retirement incentives in 2011, and four more have accepted agreements and plan to retire in the coming academic year.

That has allowed the regional law school to balance its budget amid what Hamline Dean Don Lewis calls “the tsunami effect” of declining enrollment nationwide. This year’s entering class at Hamline is expected to be about 100 students, Mr. Lewis said—a 55% drop from 2010. To lure more students, the school has ramped up financial-aid offers, a strategy that can compound financial pressures.

“I’m pretty confident about our future,” said Mr. Lewis, who is stepping down as dean next year. “But the turnaround will be slow.”

It’s Lewis’s job to sound an optimistic in these circumstances (although he himself is leaving academia to return to the law firm he helped found), but in fact there’s a significant chance that Hamline University will decide to close the law school within the next year or two.

Here are the relevant numbers:

(1) The school’s enrollment is in free fall. Until last year a typical entering class at Hamline was 205-235 students, and total JD enrollment was consequently around 650 to 715. Then last year the entering class plunged to 124. The story quotes Lewis as expecting “about 100” matriculants next month, but a well-placed source tells me that as of last week the school had received seat deposits from between 80 and 90 applicants. Since at law schools the number of July seat deposits is less than the subsequent August enrolllment, and sometimes considerably less (schools lose deposited applicants to other schools who pull people off wait lists late in the summer; in addition some people think better of enrolling at the last minute), an entering class of 100 for Hamline seems extremely optimistic.

(2) Hamline will probably have a total of about 400 JD students this fall. This is already down 40% from total enrollment two years ago, yet fully half of those students will graduate next spring. There are only going to be about 200 total students in the first and second years, which means that total JD enrollment is likely to fall to around 300 next year — down from 716 in 2009.

(3) The numbers are actually even worse than this, however, because Hamline has been cutting real tuition. Four years ago, 43% of Hamline JD students were getting discounts off tuition, and the average discount was about $19,000 the $30,500 nominal tuition. This past year, 60% of students were getting discounts that averaged $26,000 off the $36,400 nominal tuition. In other words, Hamline is getting less tuition per student than it was four years ago. Indeed if you do the math, total tuition revenues this fall will be barely half of what they were in 2009, and will fall sharply again next year.

(4) The Twin Cities are a relatively small legal market. Hamline is one of four law schools in the metro area, which under current and foreseeable conditions is about two too many.

(5) Hamline University is a small institution, with around 2100 undergraduates, and a total university operating budget of around $120,000,000. It also has a very small endowment, that throws off just a few million per year (all this is taken from the school’s IRS tax filings). The reduction in law school tuition over the past two years alone equals something like 5% of the entire university’s operating budget. All of which is to say that Hamline isn’t some multi-billion dollar behemoth that can decide to carry a law school that’s bleeding red for a few years without doing too much damage to the university’s bottom line.

Speaking of the bottom line, if you’re one of the few dozen people currently scheduled to start law school at Hamline next month, you may want to re-think your plans — or at least do a careful head count on the first day of orientation. You might also want to make inquiries into what the school’s contingency plans are for its students should the university close the law school.

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