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Papering the house

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grizzly

In the music and theater business, “papering the house” means giving away a bunch of free tickets in order to make demand for a show look much higher than it actually is.

Villanova’s law school seems to be adopting a similar strategy, as it announced this week that it will be awarding 50 three-year full tuition scholarships to matriculants in this fall’s entering class. That figure is equal to 31% of the size of last fall’s class, which included 162 students.

The most startling aspect of the school’s announcement is that, to be eligible for a three-year full ride, (a $120,180 value — operators are standing by), an applicant must merely present credentials essentially equivalent to the median matriculant last year, who had a 157 LSAT and a 3.56 UGPA (the eligibility requirements for the scholarship are a 157 LSAT and a 3.60 UGPA). And these numbers are much lower than those of the median student at the school three years ago. In those antediluvian times, the median student had a 162 LSAT, and less than a quarter of the class had LSAT scores below 157. The school’s average class size three to five years ago was 250, of which only a handful were receiving full tuition scholarships, so in effect Villanova seems to be moving from a budgetary model in which around 650 law students are paying tuition, to one in which barely 300 are paying anything at all. (Unlike many law school “scholarships,” these come with no stipulations other than not flunking out).

What’s going on here?

First, the timing of the announcement — at pretty much the exact midpoint of the application cycle — indicates that applications to Villanova are down sharply from even the drastic decline the school has already endured (applications fell from 3,739 in 2010 to 1,468 last year. The latest LSAC figures indicate that nationally applications this year will be down to 52,000, from 87,900 four years ago, and 100,600 a decade ago).

Second, it’s possible the school is hoping that lots of applicants with credentials that wouldn’t have even gotten them in three years ago will now apply in hope of securing three-yearn full rides, thus pumping up applicant totals and allowing the school to try to lure some of these people to accept offers of acceptance for much smaller discounts, or even for MSRP.

Third, even if the latter strategy doesn’t work, it’s better from an optical perspective to have a class of 160 people in which nearly a third are paying no tuition, than to let enrollment totals collapse to the point where the evidence of their senses causes people to start wondering about the existential status of the operation. After all, the marginal cost to the school of admitting students who pay no tuition is minimal (the cost to their classmates, who must compete for jobs in a hyper-saturated market, is considerable).

Fourth, as the old saying has it, you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the other guy. Villanova is one of way too many schools trying to place their grads in the relatively small Philadelphia legal market: Besides Penn — a national school that nevertheless sends a large proportion of its grads to Philly firms — you’ve got Villanova and Temple and Rutgers-Camden, and Penn State and Widener and now Drexel too. Without massive government subsidies in the form of no-doc educational loans, half of those schools would go out of business overnight. Villanova is striving mightily to stay a couple of steps ahead of the bear, as is PSU, which just cut tuition in half for state residents. If they have to be living on nuts and berries for a couple of years, that’s still better than ending up the star of a Werner Herzog documentary.

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