This is the year for admissions officers to worry about enrollments. Undergraduate enrollment is down 4.4 percent, according to the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Freshman enrollment is down 13 percent. Community college freshman enrollment is down 19 percent.
Graduate enrollment is up modestly, at 2.9 percent.
But law school applications are surging, and some signs suggest that medical school applications are as well. While the application cycle for neither sector is over yet, the numbers have officials encouraged.
Kellye Y. Testy, president and CEO of the Law School Admission Council, said that applications are up 32 percent from this point last year. And there are more applications for each applicant, with the average student applying to six law schools instead of five. Applications are up across geographic boundaries and LSAT scores.
For medical schools, the Association of American Medical Colleges didn't see a significant increase in the number of students who took the MCAT in the last year (only about 2 percent). But applications to medical schools are up 18 percent compared to a year ago.
Applications to osteopathic medical schools are also up 18 percent.
A quarter of medical students are in osteopathic medical schools. Robert A. Cain, president and CEO of their association, said, "Doctors of osteopathic medicine are physicians with a philosophy. We focus on overall health and wellness, making sure we look at the whole person -- mind, body and spirit -- and not just focused on treating the disease. In these complicated and stressful times, that philosophy is resonating with more and more students."
Medical schools are in the middle of a period in which they are seeking to expand the numbers of physicians in the U.S.
Law schools are more complicated.
Testy said that, if the increases hold, they will mark a major turnaround for law schools. The law schools lost enrollment after the Great Recession and had only just started (last year) to recover.
She cited several reasons for the turnaround. Law schools have worked hard to improve their programs' ability to land students good jobs. Likewise, some law schools have gotten smaller, so there is another boost when graduates are seeking jobs.
Certain events, like the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she said, captured public attention and showed people how much the law matters and how much difference a single person could make in the law.
But law schools have also responded to the pandemic. The Law School Admission Test can now be taken at home, and many law schools have increased their digital outreach to potential students.
"In times of economic instability, students are looking at law schools," Testy said.
She stressed that she did not see law schools expanding back to their pre-recession enrollment levels. "They are trying to be responsible," she said.
Some are more skeptical about the law application increases. Jeff Thomas, Kaplan's executive director of legal programs, cautioned against reading too much into these early data.
"In a year when we’ve been desperate for some good news, it’s heartening to see that the increase in law school applicants is across the board, with almost every [American Bar Association]-approved law school seeing a jump. And while there are reasons to be optimistic, we’d caution against premature exuberance. While many are speculating about an 'RBG effect,' which, to be fair, could be a contributing factor, the increase we are seeing right now is more likely a simple result of timing," he said.
"Between last year’s LSAT transition to a digital format, which caused many aspiring attorneys to test later than they normally would, and this year’s COVID situation, which gave many test takers the opportunity to test earlier than they normally would, we’re simply seeing students apply earlier in the cycle this year compared to last year," he said.
He noted that according to LSAC data, the number of first-time test takers for this testing year, feeding into this new application cycle, is actually down 3 percent. Also, at this time last year, only 24 percent of the final applicant count for the incoming fall 2020 class was in.
"In short, don't get too excited about a [boom] in applicants just yet," Thomas said. "Leading indicators suggest this is likely a timing shift. We will have a more definitive read in the new year, when we pass the midway point of the traditional application cycle."
And Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, a group that strives for more information about law schools and careers, said via email, "So often application increases are described as positive because the primary frame is through the business-side of higher ed. But: I am very concerned that law schools will neglect the job market for their graduates because they or their parent university are financially desperate. It's easy to say, 'We can deal with this problem in 2025 for people applying to start in 2026.' It's not until the 2025-26 cycle that there will be any accountability for choices made this cycle. That's beyond the average law school dean's tenure. The answer to this cycle of enrolling too many people, the applicant market reacting, and rinsing and repeating over many-year periods is making responsible choices."
He added that "law schools are still enrolling significantly more people than there are legal jobs and the number of legal jobs has been quite steady for quite a few years, even in relatively boom times. (I'm ignoring the pandemic. We don't know how that will impact the number nor how long that impact will [last]. The current cycle will be on the job market in 2025 and early 2026, though, so it is a long way away.) Even before the decline in jobs, the best years on record were ~30k jobs and that was consistent for 20+ years. We're at 38k 1L enrollment with the most recent data (no idea what 2020 will be). But if we go up from there, that's bad news for students -- especially because students will likely pay more not less when applicant demand is higher."