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Dropped law school application fee could increase student interest

The law school is dropping its application fee, which professors and experts said could increase the number of applicants.

Updated: Feb. 21, 2017 at 4:24 p.m.

GW Law School is waiving its application fee for first-time applicants to bring in a larger pool of potential students, faculty at the school said.

At a time when interest in law schools is declining nationwide, faculty and experts said removing the $80 fee would help GW increase its total applicant pool and attract students from diverse backgrounds.

“The obvious purpose is to get more applications,” John Banzhaf, a public interest law professor, said. “Law schools are under tremendous pressure today.”

Sophia Sim, the law school’s associate dean for admissions and financial aid, said the admissions office decided to waive the fee after officials noticed an uptick in the number of students who were requesting fee waivers.

She said the office historically removed the fee for GW undergraduates, alumni and staff as well as those with financial need and applicants involved in specialized programs like the military or the Peace Corps. But Sim said beginning about two years ago applicants began mentioning peer schools had waived all their application fees or issued individual waivers.

“The time required to respond to the individual requests became progressively more difficult and some applicants were disappointed we couldn’t provide a refund in every instance,” she said. “Therefore, in the 2016-17 admissions cycle the admissions office elected to waive the $80 application fee for every applicant.”

The law school received 6,943 applications last year, an increase of more than 200 from 2015, but still down about 20 percent from 2011 when the school attracted 8,652 applicants, according to statistics submitted to the American Bar Association.

Banzhaf said that as law schools across the country struggle to get students to pay steep tuitions, the application fee could incentivize more people to apply and therefore drive down the school’s admit rate. Tuition for J.D. students at GW currently tops $56,000.

We might get more applicants who speak two languages, have travelled to more foreign countries or have a different ideology.

While law school admissions is largely determined by applicants’ LSAT scores and undergraduate grades, Banzhaf said more applicants means the admissions committee would be able to make personalized decisions about who to admit.

“With more potential applications, that means more choice,” he said. “We might get more applicants who speak two languages, have travelled to more foreign countries or have a different ideology.”

Still, he said the move might only make GW appear more selective by enabling the school to lower its admit rate without raising the quality of students who enroll.

That lower admit rate could help the school improve in rankings like U.S. News and World Report, even without becoming more selective. GW Law School is ranked at No. 25, tied with Arizona State and Indiana universities, in this year’s U.S. News Ranking – the same spot it held last year.

GW is not the only elite law school with waning applicant interest in recent years. The number of applicants to law schools ranked in the top 20 by U.S. News has dropped by a median of 18 percent, according to data from the American Bar Association cited by Bloomberg News published last year.

“People didn’t want to come to law school, they didn’t see it as a rosy picture as they had in the past,” Banzhaf said.

As a result, the law school became less selective, though the school didn’t experience the plunge in enrollment that plagued competitors.

There are currently 1,958 students enrolled at GW Law School, down about 8 percent from 2011, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Planning.

Other law schools, like Notre Dame, have waived their application fees. The Law School Admission Council, which manages the LSAT and admission process at law schools nationwide, also offers a need-based fee waiver for students who would otherwise struggle to pay application costs.

Still, it’s unclear how large of an impact waiving the fee could have.

GW Law Professor Sonia Suter said waiving the $80 fee likely wouldn’t make much of a difference.

“Clearly it could increase the number of applicants, but I think for those applying to law school application fees are but one factor of the many that influence decisions about where to apply,” she said in an email. “To the extent that schools have different application requirements, the costs of complying with yet another set of application requirements would still remain.”

In addition to application fees, law school applicants have to shell out $180 each time they take the LSAT and $175 for the Law School Admission Council to send transcripts and letters of recommendation to each school to which they apply.

Many low-income and middle-class students who are seriously burdened by application fees are forced to make difficult choices about the number of schools to which they seek admission.

Michael Boucai, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law, said GW’s decision would signal to applicants that GW wants to attract students from across the “socioeconomic spectrum.”

“Many low-income and middle-class students who are seriously burdened by application fees are forced to make difficult choices about the number of schools to which they seek admission,” he said.

Boucai added that students would be wiser “to apply to schools that cost less to attend rather than those that cost less to apply to.”

GW Law School has become more diverse in recent years. The percentage of white students has fallen nearly 10 percent, down to 51.4 percent since 2011, while the Asian, black and international student populations have all increased. In October, the school created a new staff position specifically focused on student diversity and wellness.

Lori Lorenzo, program director at the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity – a national organization of senior legal officials aiming to increase diversity in the profession – said the policy may increase the school’s diversity.

“LCLD is excited by creative solutions to building a more inclusive profession. We hope that this initiative will encourage diverse applicants to consider law school, and remove one barrier to entry for a group of individuals generally underrepresented in the law,” she said in an email.

This post has been updated to reflect the following information:

A statement from the GW Law School has been added to the story.

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