Law schools across the country have struggled in the last decade with declining enrollment.
In that time, the University of New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce School of Law has seen many changes. It’s no longer a private school and it’s seen growing deficits.
The school spent more than double its operating budget last fiscal year, but university officials say these losses are an investment in the law school’s long-term success and things are starting to look up.
NHPR’s Morning Edition Rick Ganley spoke with the dean of UNH Law, Megan Carpenter.
(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited for clarity.)
Your enrollment numbers have gone up this year. Why do you think that is?
For a few reasons, some connected to kind of an overarching strategy that we've had in place for for several years. We saw a national downturn in applications to law school approaching about 40 percent. And law schools took two different kind of approaches to this problem. I think a lot of law schools decided to reduce their admissions standards in an effort to keep their enrollment up and their revenue up.
So accepting more students that they would not have ordinarily?
Exactly. And I think that was primarily a business sort of revenue issue for the law schools. Some public law schools didn't suffer that problem quite as much, because it's very common for public law schools to receive direct state funding. We do not, at UNH Law, receive direct state funding. But the university decided to take a different approach. And the university decided that really the key to long term success for New Hampshire's law school was to kind of do the opposite, which is to shrink the size of the entering class and raise the profile of the entering students and create truly kind of an excellent program of legal education.
So the idea being, we will still be very selective and increase our rankings nationally and be become a school that people want to come to. And that's how our enrollment will eventually go up.
Exactly. Through that investment, we have seen phenomenal student outcomes come of that. So, you know, if you think about why students go to law school, it would be to kind of pass the bar and get a job. And in both areas, UNH Law has just knocked it out of the park in the last few years. We are 13th in the nation right now for our employment outcomes. And that means that almost 95 percent of our graduates have jobs, real jobs, on the market within 10 months of graduation, which is kind of when law schools start counting.
How are you sure that you're getting better quality students under this idea of trying to keep your standards above other law schools in the country? Are you sure you're getting that quality student?
There are a couple measures that law schools take of student profile. One is the performance on the LSAT entrance exam, and those are pretty reliable indicators of success in bar passage as well. GPA is another way that we factor into our student profile. We have a new program that is a Hybrid JD, mostly online that is the first Hybrid JD in the country that's in a specialized area of the law. And it's focused on intellectual property and technology law where we have for the last 30 years been kind of a nationwide leader. In that program, we've seen in our first entering class this fall 69 percent of these students coming in have additional advanced degrees. So that's another way we can measure a profile.
I understand you've got a long term strategy, of course, to increase enrollment. Numbers have gone up. But ideally, you should be breaking even at some point. I imagine that's the long term goal here. When does the school projected a financial return on all of this long term investment?
In higher education, we see an ebb and flow over time. Sometimes, you know, STEM is up and liberal arts is down. Sometimes liberal arts is up and STEM is down. That's why we really think of higher education in a holistic way. Higher education is not sort of designed to be a profit center. However, we project a breakeven point at 2023-2024.
And you feel like you're on track?
We are actually exceeding our projections. We're pretty conservative when it comes to our financial projections.
What is your argument to an average resident in New Hampshire about why spending that much money to keep the law school afloat is worth it?
Well, I would say a couple of things. First of all, there is not an Amazon or an Apple that is created without investment. And the question isn't sort of limited to the amount of the investment. The question needs to expand to what is the overall return on that investment. So with our new hybrid program, for example, it's net positive of half a million dollars in the first year of its operation. And so our projections look very good for the next few years as we innovate in ways that respond to the marketplace.
You project a half million dollar return on the investment there. What is that exactly? How do you quantify that?
That's from the additional students that we have in the building.
But again, you're still in the red as far as running overall deficit?
Oh, yeah. Something else that's really important to think about when it comes to the role of the law school in the state of New Hampshire is that over 20 percent of all attorneys in the state are alumni of the law school. And what we see is that the law school is a very powerful economic engine to keep educated young professionals in the state.
We take in about 72 percent of our students from outside of the state of New Hampshire. We draw from all across the country, from California to Washington, to Texas, Florida, New York. But when our students graduate, over half of all of our students decide to stay in New Hampshire after they graduate. And so in a state where we talk so much about workforce development and we worry about brain drain, the law school is such a powerful tool to be able to keep educated young professionals in the state of New Hampshire.