The Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley School of Law publicly announced that it intends to shut down its campus in Ann Arbor, Mich. at the end of the year, pending approval from the school’s accreditors.
The announcement, barring a last-minute development, makes it the first legal campus to close amid a severe downturn in applications and enrollment at the nation’s approximately 200 law schools.
The campus was only one of several operated by the law school, which will continue to operate its flagship campus in Lansing along with outposts in Grand Rapids, Auburn Hills and Tampa, Fla. Its closure is also far from sudden, as the campus already canceled its 2014 first-year class last summer.
Nonetheless, the announcement is a significant moment, marking the first casualty of a severe crisis in the field of legal education.
Long a major avenue for young Americans aspiring to the upper middle class or seasoned adults seeking a career change, law school has been hit by a crisis that has sent application and matriculation numbers into free fall.
The largest factor is an oversaturation of the legal field, as the country’s 204 ABA-accredited produce far more JDs than there are legal jobs open to accept them. Rapidly rising tuition rates and relatively stagnant earnings for lawyers have played a roll as well.
Law school matriculations have declined nationwide (falling from over 50,000 to under 40,000), but Cooley’s fall has been exceptionally dramatic. In 2010 the school enrolled 1583 first-year students at its campuses; by the fall of 2013 that number cratered all the way to 582. Since Cooley relies primarily on tuition dollars to stay open, its shrinking student body has wreaked havoc on school finances.
While Cooley’s Ann Arbor campus is the first to fall, it may not even be the only school to be shuttered this month. The Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, Calif., missed a bond payment over the summer, and if it fails to negotiate a deal with its creditors by Oct. 17, it may find itself unable to continue as well.
Both Cooley and Jefferson have been particularly exposed to the downturn in legal education. Jefferson is an independent law school, unattached to any larger university, and the same was true for Cooley until it began an affiliation with Western Michigan less than two months ago. The two schools are also known to have particularly poor jobs numbers for their graduates. According to the site Law School Transparency, less than 23 percent of Cooley graduates successfully find full-time jobs requiring a JD within 9 months of graduation.
All is not be lost for the students currently attending Cooley’s Ann Arbor campus. Students who wish to keep at their studies are being offered special stipends to transfer their studies to one of Cooley’s other campuses. Even if their legal ambitions are derailed by the closure, however, students will be able to benefit from a federal law that allows students whose institutions shut down to discharge their student loans. As a result, if students are unable to continue, they will avoid losing tens of thousands of dollars on top of the time invested in law school.
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