A recent article in The Wall Street Journal highlights the efforts of some law schools to generate applicants (and enroll students) in the declining legal market. The print version of the paper included a large photograph of University of Illinois College of Law Dean Bruce P. Smith. It’s an odd time for that school to seek publicity. Not long ago, the ABA fined the school $250,000 for intentionally submitting false LSAT and GPA data.

The new initiatives include scholarships, although for many schools those aren’t really new. For years, some law schools have used non-need-based financial aid to lure students with high LSATs. Lurking behind the current initiatives — and the counterproductive behavior of far too many law school deans — are the ubiquitous U.S. News rankings. Obsession over those rankings created a climate that produced the University of Illinois College of Law’s sanctionable conduct.

There’s just one problem…

The difficulty for many “merit” scholarship recipients is two-fold. First, the money often disappears after year one. For years two and three, the law school business model reasserts its power and, for most students, loans for tuition keep school revenues and profits flowing. The New York Times wrote about that phenomenon last year.

I don’t know what the University of Illinois College of Law’s approach will be, but tuition there is $44,520 for non-residents and $37,100 for residents. Dean Smith said that grants went to every member of the class of 2014 (including those admitted from the wait list) at a total cost of $3.6 million. Maintaining that average of $18,000 per student (assuming enrollment of 200) for all three years would be a daunting task. After all, it’s a state school and Illinois is in terrible financial shape.

Make that two problems…

The more abiding challenge for many students surfaces a bit later: limited job opportunities. For example, the University of Illinois College of Law awarded 190 J.D. degrees in 2011. According to its July 2012 ABA employment report, nine months after graduation, only 96 had full-time long term jobs requiring bar passage.

Other schools mentioned in the WSJ article include:

USC (Gould School of Law): 207 graduates in 2011; nine months after graduation, 134 with full-time long term jobs requiring bar passage.

UCLA: 344 graduates in 2011; 211 with full-time long term jobs requiring bar passage.

George Washington University: 518 graduates in 2011; 421 with full-time long term jobs requiring bar passage.

Brooklyn Law School: 455 graduates in 2011; 215 with full-time long term jobs requiring bar passage.

The overall full-time long term employment rate for all 2011 law school graduates with jobs requiring bar passage was 55 percent.

An old trick

The premise of these scholarship programs is simple. Rather than reduce tuition for everyone, keep the list price high (hotel managers would call it a room’s “rack rate”) for those who can afford it and offer differential discounts to those who are price sensitive at the margin. The secrecy of individual grants creates a perfect environment for implementing what economists might call pricing along the demand curve. Extract as much as possible from each buyer while maximizing total sales (enrollments).

For anyone with a long-run perspective that extends beyond filling up next year’s law school classrooms, the approach might seem a bit perplexing. If there are twice as many law jobs as there are graduating students with J.D.s, might it make more sense to adopt a strategy that reduced total enrollment?

To their credit, some schools, including George Washington University, are doing that. But for the most part, each law school is striving to maintain enrollments and the credentials of entering classes. Insofar as they are now throwing scholarship money at prospective students who are uncertain about whether to attend law school at all, they’re making things even worse.

U.S. News strikes again

Professor William Henderson correctly closes the article with this observation: “It’s the fear of a U.S. News downward spiral. It’s hard to come up in the rankings when your applications are going down.”

Thank goodness the U.S. News rankings’ guru Robert Morse clarified his magazine’s position on all of this: “[T]he rankings should not be a management tool that law school administrators use as the basis for proving that their school is improving or declining.”

Unfortunately, they do.