Two North Texas universities recently decided to no longer enroll new students in their evening law school programs.
The schools, SMU and Texas A&M in Fort Worth, cite dwindling enrollment. The decision comes at a time when law students around the country struggle to find jobs in their field, while shouldering a lot of debt.
When Jennifer Collins was a law student, she said things were different. To motivated, but indecisive, students, studying law seemed like a solid path to success.
“They didn’t enjoy organic chemistry, so decided medical school wasn’t for them, and they went to law school instead,” Collins said.
Today, Collins is the dean of SMU’s Dedman School of Law.
“And now what we’re seeing is students who are much more careful in making the decision and really are excited about the practice of law and they’re not just coming because they’re not sure what else to do,” Collins said.
That could be one reason why fewer North Texans are enrolling in nighttime law school. Declining interest and enrollment recently led SMU and Texas A&M to stop admitting new students to their evening programs.
Collins says students who already have a career – the most common type of evening law student -- are wondering whether it makes financial sense to take on loan debt and switch careers.
Especially now, with recent TV news reports like this: “The average law student nationwide leaves school owing more than $100,000. ... Many of the people who are going to law school right now are never going to be lawyers. … 'We’re not creating more real lawyer jobs, we’re just decreasing the supply of would-be lawyers.'”
Andrew Morris is dean of Texas A&M University School of Law. He says the media has definitely played a part in students’ decisions.
“Whether they’re right or not is another question, but the negative publicity about the legal job market seems to have had a disproportionate impact on evening part-time students," he said. "They already have a job, and they’re thinking ‘Well, why should I go to school to get a new job if the new job is not necessarily there?’ ”
Before Texas A&M decided to cut its evening program, Morris said the school hired a research firm to look at why fewer people were applying.
The report highlighted a new player on the scene – UNT Dallas College of Law, which opened a couple of years ago.
Location matters. A&M’s law school is in Fort Worth. Morris said researchers found most people applying to the evening program were in Dallas. When it came down to it, they just didn’t want to drive to Fort Worth for class after a day’s work.
“Overall, applications nationally have been down basically since 2008,” Morris said. “And a result of that, that decline has actually hit harder second-career people, who are less inclined to go to law school now than they were in the past.”
While evening programs are suffering, Texas A&M’s traditional, daytime law program is thriving. SMU law school dean Jennifer Collins sees the same on her campus. This year, applications to SMU’s School of Law rose almost 8 percent compared to the nationwide average of nearly 2 percent.
“We are so lucky to be located in Dallas with its economy and all the job opportunities that are still here and so lots of students want to come take advantage of the opportunities that we offer," Collins said.
In fact, Collins sees a new trend among students enrolled in evening classes.
“Many of our students who start that way decide they want to convert and be fulltime students because rather than continuing to work in a job that may not advance their legal career, what they want to do is finish their law school education more quickly and be getting legal experience,” she said.
While no new students will be admitted to SMU’s and A&M’s evening law programs, university officials say current evening students will still be able to earn their final credits.