Law school reckoning: University of Minnesota wants more subsidies to stay selective

University of Minnesota Law School Dean Garry Jenkins
University of Minnesota Law School Dean Garry Jenkins, who joined the school in 2016, is trying to guide the school out of a financial problem the school has been facing since 2012, at the school on May 18, 2018.
Peter Cox | MPR News

The University of Minnesota Law School is still trying to recover from a big dip in enrollment. And the university's Board of Regents is weighing how best to help the law school while not taking too much from the university's other programs.

Before and during the recession, revenue and applicant pools at law schools grew.

But then the recession took a toll on the job market, and law firms cut back.

"About a two-year delay after the recession, we started to see law school applications begin to decline," said University of Minnesota Law School Dean Garry Jenkins.

According to numbers provided by the university, applications to law schools nationwide fell 36 percent between 2010 and 2017, and fell by 53 percent at the U over that same period.

U of M law school
The University of Minnesota is finally seeing a slight increase in enrollment after a huge decrease in the early 2010s.
Tim Post for MPR News 2011

Through that decline the U of M was faced with a difficult decision — increase the number of students, or keep their admissions standards high and accept smaller classes

The U chose to maintain its standards, and continue to be ranked in the top 20 law schools in the country.

Jenkins, who joined the law school in 2016, said to compete, the U needed to offer students incentives.

"So in other words, the University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin and now the University of Minnesota were competing for a smaller pool of outstanding students and that raised the financial aid that we had to budget for," he said.

In short, tuition revenues took a big hit.

Since 2012, the U of M's central administration has been helping the law school with a yearly subsidy that's now grown to around $7.5 million a year. And earlier this month, Jenkins had to ask for another increase in that subsidy over the next three years.

The plan, presented to the university's Board of Regents in early May, would slowly increase the subsidy a total of $4.5 million to the law school through fiscal year 2021. A report given to the regents projects the school would have a structurally balanced budget and reserves to cover tuition revenue fluctuations by 2023.

At a May 10 meeting, a number of regents said they were unhappy with the law school's request for more money. Especially as the U administration is also proposing a two percent hike in resident tuition for Twin Cities undergraduates.

"The bottom line for me is the cost of this subsidy ... is beginning to get to the point where it's too painful for other elements of the university to continue to bear," said Regent David McMillan. He said he wants the law school to do well, but doesn't want to see a subsidy continue to grow.

Other professional schools at the university also get financial help from within the U, including the dental school, the school of public affairs and the medical school. That financial help is often larger than the law school's.

Some regents also asked why the school doesn't lower its standards a bit to allow more students in and bring in more tuition revenue. But some students argue keeping the U selective is a better move.

"That's undoubtedly a signal to smart, hardworking students around the country," said Devin Driscoll, a 2018 law school grad, who went to college and worked in Rhode Island before coming to Minnesota. "Once they come here they find this is an amazing place to work and to play and to raise a family. And I do agree that maintaining our status as a top 20 law school should be a goal."

University Provost Karen Hanson said the law school's reputation is a strength for the entire university.

"If we can we need to fix the financial problem in a way that doesn't jettison an important, high-quality component of our university," she said. "We have to balance our budget, but the mission of the university is not the budget, the mission is research and service."

Those issues aside, the market might be taking care of some of that financial pain. The first year class in 2017 was the biggest in four years.

"For us, our applications were up 10 percent his year. In our region, applications were up about 7.5 percent. So I think that ultimately we are seeing some green shoots, we're excited about what happened in the admissions market this year," said Dean Jenkins.

The Board of Regents will vote on the overall school budget, including funding for the law school, at its meeting next month.

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