How Law Schools Can Project Enrollment During COVID-19

This post is based on commentary delivered during a webinar for admission professionals on April 24, 2020.

Law schools are navigating an unprecedented situation during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is presenting new challenges for admission professionals hoping to attract candidates and project enrollment for the upcoming Fall 2020 semester. For a look at how schools are responding to those challenges, I recently hosted an LSAC webinar with Kristin Theis-Alvarez, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law; Matt Saleh, assistant dean for admissions at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law; and Evan Didier, associate director of enrollment management at LSAC.

How is the COVID-19 situation affecting application volumes?
Didier reported that the number of applicants to U.S. law schools was down 3.9 percent, while applications were down 3.1 percent, compared with last year’s numbers. Two-thirds of American law schools were seeing a decrease in applications. Theis-Alvarez and Saleh, though, said their numbers have been relatively flat, but that it’s probably still too early to know what the impact of the pandemic will be on fall enrollment.

Given this unprecedented situation, how can law schools make predictions about their fall classes?
Saleh noted that schools will have to adjust their projections to make sure they reflect this “new normal.” And Theis-Alvarez said that because her school’s application deadlines were pushed back two weeks, she expects to see fewer “maybe” and more definitive “yes” or “no” responses than she otherwise would have expected. Saleh added that the timing of those adjusted deadlines can affect “summer melt.” In admissions, summer melt occurs when students commit to attending a particular institution, but then, over the course of the summer, decide against attending that institution in favor of a different one. For example, if one school has an April 15 deadline, and another school’s deadline is May 15, you could see some slight melt where you might not otherwise have expected it.

How will the current situation impact yield?
As Saleh noted, this new reality is one that admission professionals are still trying to fully understand in terms of how all the different variables impact yield, and given the fluid situation, it’s too early to say much. Many students are not currently in a position to be able to fully commit to a school. They could have employment concerns, be unsure about whether the semester will be in-person or online, or be worried about committing to a living situation in an unfamiliar city. Because of all those things, Saleh predicted that slightly above-average melt, or lower yield, later in the year is likely.

What is LSAC doing to address some of those concerns?
LSAC recently conducted two different surveys, one for member law schools and one for candidates. Law schools were asked how enrollments and deferrals are looking, while candidates were asked for their thoughts on online instruction. The results of the law school survey were sent to participating schools. In the candidates’ survey, prospective law students largely reported that they would be okay with taking online classes, so that issue may not impact candidate yield as much as initially thought.

How else can law schools gauge the strength of their deposits and project yield?
Both Saleh and Theis-Alvarez said it’s important to engage with candidates as much as possible. Since on-campus events are on hold, there are more resources for virtual programming to connect with candidates and increase their interest in enrolling. These events might include webinars and virtual housing tours to alleviate concerns that students may have about coming to their prospective school’s part of the country. Theis-Alvarez added that online events have turned out to be a rich source of candidate information.

How is the current situation impacting diversity efforts at law schools?
That’s a big question, and the impacts of COVID-19 cut many different ways, but Theis-Alvarez noted that many people who might not be able to visit a school in person, either because of a disability or because it’s too expensive, can now do so online, so that actually could help increase diversity. And while research has shown that minority and underrepresented groups are those most likely to be impacted by a lack of in-person visits, the preliminary enrollment data doesn’t show these groups being disparately impacted compared to previous years. In the same vein, Saleh said his office is trying to find a “silver lining” and use virtual events as a way to break down some of those socioeconomic barriers, not just during the pandemic but in future admission cycles as well.

How has attendance for online events compared to attendance for in-person events?
In terms of volume, both Theis-Alvarez and Saleh said there has been more participation, but cautioned that they expect yield from those events to be lower. That said, by hosting so many more events and connecting more often with students via email, schools can make more impressions with them and get them thinking more about enrolling. Again, Saleh said this is an area where success could change his school’s approach moving forward and lead to more online events.

Are schools getting more questions about deferments?
Schools seem to be getting more questions, but nothing too substantial; in general, candidates are simply asking about the deferment policy. There could be an increase in deferment requests, though, as commitment deadlines approach, so Saleh recommended having discussions now to make sure those policies are well-defined. 

How is this crisis affecting enrollment of international students?
Online courses don’t help students who are on the other side of the world, since it’s not feasible for them to participate at 2 a.m. And uncertainty about visas, specifically when they will be available, is likely to pose a problem. Unfortunately, this pandemic is going to disproportionately affect international students, and schools must be mindful of that, depending on what percentage of their classes are coming from abroad.

In general, our panelists agreed that while these are changing times, there’s still value in the data schools have on hand, so they should try to use it to their advantage and find a silver lining in terms of reducing barriers to the legal profession and connecting with candidates. Theis-Alvarez added that it’s important for law school admission professionals to build time into their schedules to think about what they wish they knew and the tools they will need to obtain that information. 

This was a thoughtful, engaging discussion, and I extend my deepest thanks to our three panelists for taking the time to share their thoughts.

About Gisele Joachim

Director of LSAC Ambassadors
Prior to joining the Ambassadors team at LSAC, Gisele Joachim was the dean of enrollment management at Seton Hall University School of Law.