STATEMENT OF WESTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY THOMAS M. COOLEY LAW SCHOOL IN RESPONSE TO RECENT ARTICLE IN LANSING STATE JOURNAL
April 10, 2017
A recent Lansing State Journal article about enrollment and financial matters at the Law School is full of misstatements and false impressions. This statement is intended to set the record straight. The article suggests that students aren’t attending the School. But we are the seventh largest law school in the nation. Contrary to the implications of the article, the Law School’s enrollment and financial condition are stable, indeed improving. Applications and admissions deposits are up. Graduate employment figures are up, while lawyer unemployment in the nation is low. Law school debt is low. Ultimate bar pass rates are very good. The Law School has not lowered its admission standards in light of the recession that led to reduced enrollment. And the Law School was recently fully re-accredited by both the American Bar Association and the Higher Learning Commission.
Student Enrollment Numbers
The story tries to make it seem like we have no students. The author ignores the fact that we are the 7th largest law school in the nation, with J.D. enrollment behind only Georgetown, Harvard, George Washington, NYU, American, and Columbia. Five of those schools, including WMU-Cooley, were in the top seven in 2011. Certainly, enrollment declined from our historic high, but the Law School is hardly in the “freefall” the author states it to be.
Applications to the Law School are and have been increasing. Deposits for our upcoming May and September entering classes are up significantly over last year. Attendance by prospective students at campus open houses, campus tours, admitted student programs, and national and regional student recruitment and alumni events has been strong.
As a sign of the need for legal education, the Law School is beginning weekend J.D. programs at Auburn Hills and Tampa Bay in May and starting a unique weekend program at Lansing in September featuring a combination of on-line and in-residence instruction. These programs add to the many others that make legal education at WMU-Cooley more convenient and affordable.
The Law School is proud that it has the fifth largest number of minority J.D. students in the nation, following only Harvard and the three law schools in Puerto Rico. Minority students comprise 41% of our J.D. student body.
Graduate Employment Rate
The article says that only 27% of our graduates in 2015 obtained full-time, long-term work within nine months of graduation. That statement is false. The actual number for 2015 for our graduates with known employment status was 55%. And excluding those whose employment status is not known, the rate is 60%.
For 2016, our just-tabulated nine-month full-time, long-term employment rate has increased to 64%. And excluding those whose employment status is unknown, the rate is 67%.
Those numbers do not include other graduates who are in full-time but short-term positions, are in long-term but part-time positions, or are continuing in academia. Only 19% of our students for 2016 reported they were unemployed and seeking employment at nine months after graduation. The measure of nine months after graduation is not comparable to many other schools because, as we have three graduating cohorts annually, some of our graduates have not, or have just barely, received their bar results within nine months of graduation.
Our “bar admission-required” placement rates are typically lower than at many other schools because so many of our students are non-traditional students who graduate into business, academia, and nonprofits, where their employment does not count for that category. For example, one 2017 graduate is a Kalamazoo-area businessman whose companies employ many people, who is fully employed in his own great businesses, and who has endowed a law scholarship, but whose employment would not count as a bar admission-required job. Using the ABA’s bar admission-required definition, neither would the position of President of the United States.
Lawyer Employment and the Legal Climate
The legal climate has improved significantly in recent years. According to the most recent quarterly figures from the U.S. Department of Labor, lawyer unemployment is only 0.6%, down from 0.7% for 2016. What this means is that lawyers are employed at a rate far above that for most other occupations.
Law Student Debt
The article says that average law school debt is rising with the false implication that our students are defaulting. Yet our most recently published student default rate is 3.5%, which is very low. WMU’s default rate for master or doctoral degrees is 5.9%. And our preliminary default rate for next year has fallen to 2.7%.
Financial Condition of the Law School
The story implies that the School is in financial peril. It is not. In 2014, we publicly announced a financial restructuring plan necessitated by the decline in enrollment. That plan included a refinancing of the Law School by sophisticated investors who purchased our tax-exempt bonds. We are ahead of pace for completing the financial plan. And the U.S. Department of Education just released its updated financial responsibility scores for independent schools. Our score is 2.2, the same as Michigan State University College of Law. A score greater than or equal to 1.5 indicates the institution is considered financially responsible.
The article says that the Law School recently “began admitting students who might not have made the cut a few years prior.” That is false. We have not dropped our minimum admission standard, unlike many schools including perceived top-tier schools.
Bar Pass Rates
The author suggests that our students cannot pass the bar exam at a high rate, but the bar pass figures he cites do not tell the story. For our 2011-2015 cohorts, the persistence pass rate on the Michigan bar examination is 92%. That is an outstanding result.
The article says that our admissions criteria implicate our bar pass rate, which “could mean problems down the road” for the School in light of a proposed new bar admission standard. That is misleading at best as the author ignores the fact that the ABA House of Delegates flatly rejected that proposed standard in February.
The author falsely suggests our accreditation might be at risk. The Law School was recently fully re-accredited by the ABA. We meet all ABA standards. We were even more recently re-accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, which likewise accredits WMU.
The Law School’s Vision and Future
As a Law School dedicated to educating students with the knowledge, skills, and ethics they need to succeed in the practice of law—both today and tomorrow—WMU-Cooley has been at the forefront of innovation since its founding. We created the nation’s first weekend program. We teach year round with three entering classes annually. We were the first school to have more than two campuses. We emphasized practical legal training decades before most other schools even thought about it.
We have perceived the changing landscape of the law and legal education and adjusted accordingly. We are at the forefront of designing a curriculum based on learning outcomes and assessment. Understanding that increasing numbers of law students would need the flexibility to be employed while attending classes, we opened campuses in the Detroit area, Grand Rapids, and Tampa, and we have expanded our weekend offerings. Recognizing that technology would play an increasingly important role in the law, we are at the forefront of teaching how to use technology. Understanding the cost of legal education, we have increased our scholarship program. And knowing that nearly two-thirds of the nation’s private practitioners work in firms of from one to ten lawyers, we have created programs that teach our students not only the law, but how to practice it, including how to operate a law business.
Our affiliation with Western Michigan University, a top public university, is providing students and faculty from both institutions with increased opportunities for teaching, learning, and research. That affiliation has gone so well that WMU is now operating at our Auburn Hills and Tampa Bay campuses and soon will be in our Lansing campus.
Always seeking to improve, the Law School is guided by the principles of its new strategic plan, adopted in October 2016 following input by students, faculty, staff, alumni, and outside constituents. That plan sets forth the mission, values, and visions needed to keep the Law School at the forefront of legal education for decades to come. We have the means and motivation to meet that plan, and we are confident that we will.