Amid declining enrollment and budget deficits at the University of Minnesota’s Law School, the new dean wants to shift the narrative.
Since taking over leadership at the law school in July, Garry Jenkins has pushed aside stories about mending declining enrollment to focus on curriculum and job placement instead.
Applications to the University’s law school dropped by nearly 50 percent between 2010 and 2015, and first-year enrollments fell by over 30 percent, leading to a loss of tuition revenue for the school.
The decrease in Minnesota law students mirrors a nationwide trend of declining applications since a record-high number of students were enrolled in law schools in 2010.
“We recognize that there’s a certain number of attorneys that the legal market needs,” Jenkins said. “We’re not necessarily trying to get enrollment back to where it was in the past. We’re going to right-size.”
He added that many other law schools have had to adjust their enrollment strategies to meet the current supply of applicants.
Last year, Hamline University School of Law and William Mitchell College of Law merged to be able to offer more enrollment options.
“That often happens when institutions are facing unforeseen situations with respect to annual budget challenges,” Jenkins said.
Law schools reported to the American Bar Association that almost 38,000 full- and part-time students enrolled in 2014, a 27.7 percent decrease from a record-high of about 53,000 in 2010.
Jenkins said the downturn could be a result of an oversaturated job market following the spike of law school grads in 2010.
The number of licensed attorneys in the United States has increased by nearly 40 percent since 1990, according to the ABA. Schools saw their application and enrollment numbers drop after law school enrollment hit its peak in 2010.
Rather than focus on enrollment, Jenkins said he wants to put a larger emphasis on accessibility and affordability at the Law School, as well as curriculum and job placement for graduates.
“Right now it’s a competitive environment to bring in the best and the brightest,” he said. “I want to make sure that they have the opportunities to do whatever it is they want to do after graduation and not be encumbered by debt.”
Jenkins said he wants the Law School to ramp up efforts to raise money for scholarships and expand outreach efforts to alumni and donors.
He said he’ll also prioritize relevant curriculum in the school’s programs and build up relationships with the Minnesota State Bar Association, as well as community businesses to help graduates find jobs.
“It’s what the alumni and the legal market expects of us,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re living up to their expectations so that we continue to be a valuable partner for the community.”
Julie Tonneson, the University’s associate vice president for budget and finance, said declining enrollment at the Law School led to a budget deficit, causing the school to deplete its reserves.
She said the Law School has reduced their expenses by roughly $4.6 million since 2014, and the University has increased allocations by $5.5 million to address the imbalance.
“Clearly, we’re in a process where we’re trying to adjust our budget to our revenues,” Jenkins said. “We’re … adjusting to a reality in which we will be a smaller institution.”
Additionally, in 2013, the Board of Regents began authorizing year-end transfers to the school to cover shortfalls. The transfers totaled $13.9 million through 2016.
Regent Richard Beeson, chair of the board’s Finance Committee, said the transfers were initially characterized as short-term funding plans, but the board reviews the Law School’s budget annually to address the school’s needs on a year-by-year basis.
“We just couldn’t predict if the trend would continue,” he said.
Tonneson said the budget shortage should be mostly eliminated by June 2017, according to the current projections from the Office of Budget and Finance.
Beeson said the cost of the transfers is worth keeping up the Law School’s national reputation — it is currently ranked as the 22nd best law school in the country by U.S. News and World Report.
“This is the legal center for the upper Midwest,” Beeson said. “Any time you have such a high-ranking school, you need to support it.”