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What’s Next for the Overcrowded Job Market? Fewer Graduates

Tim Sprinkle
The Exchange

It's simple supply and demand: too many graduates, not enough jobs.

But, at long last, something is being done about the "supply" side of that equation. According to a story The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, a number of law schools nationwide are cutting the sizes of their incoming classes as the market for their grads continues to dry up.

"Law schools don't think this is going to bounce back."

To date, at least 10 of the country's 200 or so law schools — including top-ranked programs like those at Northwestern University and George Washington University — have announced plans to trim admissions, and The University of California's Hastings College of Law in San Francisco said it plans to enroll 20 percent fewer students. Even before these cuts were announced, applicants were losing interest. Law school applications for 2012 are down 14 percent to just 65,119, according to the Law School Admissions Council, which administers the LSAT law school admission test.

And who can blame them? The incentives that have driven students to law school in the past — high starting salaries, ample job opportunities, the promise of future advancement — have all but disappeared, leaving more than a few graduates with heavy student loan debt and little in the way of job prospects to show for it.

According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), we're in the middle of the worst job market for legal grads in nearly a generation. The overall employment rate for the law school class of 2011 fell to the lowest level since 1994 — just 85.6 percent — and is down two percentage points from the year prior. In fact, the law school employment rate has been dropping steadily since peaking at 91.9 percent in 2007.

What's worse, only 65.6 percent of law graduates last year found jobs that even required bar membership in the first place, suggesting that their law school careers were very challenging, very expensive three-year vacations from the real world.

Need more proof? How about the fact that, until recently, the Boston College Law School office of career services was advertising an entry-level law position with a local firm that paid a whopping $10,000 per year (there's that "oversupply" problem again)? Also, massive global law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf filed for bankruptcy protection in late May, taking some 1,300 attorney jobs with it.

Not Just Law

The move to trim the annual herd of new law graduates mirrors recent cutbacks in other professional programs, including those in business and medicine. As of last fall, two-thirds of full-time MBA programs were reporting a decrease in application volume, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council's (GMAC) Application Trends Survey, as applications dropped an average of 9.9 percent across the board. A full third of full-time MBA programs reported an application drop of more than 10 percent in 2011, according to the report. Applications to the MBA program at Harvard Business School, for example, fell to 9,331 for the enrollment class of 2013, down from 10,368 for 2012.

"The caution in this year's survey for full-time MBA programs is unsurprising in the current economy as students weigh the financial and time commitments required to pursue a graduate business degree," said GMAC President and CEO Dave Wilson when the report was released.

None of this is surprising to the country's Ph.D. programs, where enrollments have been shrinking for years. All the way back in 2009, Inside Higher Ed reported that a number of top Ph.D. programs — including well-regarded schools such as Columbia University and Emory — were shrinking the size of their humanities doctoral programs, mirroring similar moves at Harvard, Princeton, Northwestern and the University of Chicago. Earlier this year, the University of Pittsburgh said it would cut off admissions to its master's and doctoral programs in German, religious studies and classics due to a loss of state funding.

Undergraduates, Too

Even undergraduates are starting to get the message that there may not be a high-paying job at the end of their higher education rainbow. According to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, enrollments at degree-granting institutions spiked 38 percent between 1999 and 2009, from 14.8 million to 20.4 million, but students these days are increasingly focusing on more "job market ready" fields. According to enrollment statistics from UC San Diego, for example, declared majors in science/math are up 94 percent since 2001, while biology and engineering jumped 51 percent and 21 percent, respectively. On the other hand, arts majors are down 26 percent in that time.

What do you think? Will smaller graduating classes mean better prospects for postgraduate students?