As Law School Demand Drops, Credit Quality Among U.S. Schools Diverges

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1 As Law School Demand Drops, Credit Quality Among U.S. Schools Diverges Primary Credit Analysts: Robert D Dobbins, CPA, San Francisco (1) ; Nick Waugh, Boston (1) ; Secondary Contacts: Jessica A Matsumori, San Francisco (1) ; Carlotta R Mills, San Francisco (1) ; Research Contributor: Phillip A Pena, San Francisco; Table Of Contents Law Schools Use Different Strategies to Respond To The Demand Slide The Credit Quality Gap Widens Between Stand-Alone And Component Law Schools Strong Management Will Be Key DECEMBER 5,

2 As Law School Demand Drops, Credit Quality Among U.S. Schools Diverges Stable-to-growing demand has been a characteristic of law schools for the much of the past 25 years, but since 2010 enrollment at many law schools has dropped precipitously. Professional and graduate school enrollment generally runs counter-cyclical to the economy. Workers turn to education to re-tool their knowledge if they lose their jobs, and students continue on to graduate school to avoid entering a weak job market. Not surprisingly then, law school enrollment increased in the early parts of the "Great Recession." But as the economy has gradually recovered, Standard & Poor's Ratings Services has observed a significant reduction in enrollment at the law schools it rates, which, in many cases, has more than offset the growth generated during the recession. We believe high prospective debt loads and dwindling post-graduation employment opportunities have contributed to the large declines in enrollment at many law schools in the short term. We will continue to assess these risks, as well as the medium to long-term risks to law school enrollment associated with technological advances and increasing efficiencies in the legal employment market that have the potential to permanently alter the demand for lawyers. Overview Demand has been plummeting at law schools since the end of the recession. Law schools have been trying various strategies to manage the decline in demand. Credit quality appears to be bifurcating between small stand-alone law schools and component programs in nationally recognized universities and large state schools. We believe the credit profiles of law schools has diverged, with the strong becoming stronger or remaining stable while the weak are becoming weaker. Credit quality has been deteriorating for stand-alone law schools, which are more susceptible to credit deterioration than law schools that are nested within comprehensive universities. But even with programmatic diversification, some lower rated ('BBB' category) universities that have historically relied on their law school operations for profitability are experiencing credit deterioration. Law Schools Use Different Strategies to Respond To The Demand Slide A law school education will continue to be beneficial for many graduates, but it can involve significant financial risks and opportunity costs. Law school students forgo work and often take on sizeable student loans to finance their educations. With a high cost of attendance and weak job prospects upon graduation, fewer recent potential law school students have been willing to assume those risks. We believe declines in the number of law school applicants will continue to weaken the demand metrics we track, such as acceptance and matriculation rates and student quality. In addition to weak demand (the LSAT exam cycle recorded the fewest number of test takers in over a decade), there is greater competition for prospective law DECEMBER 5,

3 students as a result of the growth in ABA-approved law schools (201 in , up from 183 in the school year and 175 in the school year). Furthermore, many law schools have grown enrollment from historical levels, increasing the level of competition for students among schools relative to prior periods. In our opinion, demand pressure will remain at law schools over the next couple of years, with the LSAT exam cycle threatening to extend the trend of test-taker declines to four consecutive years. Chart 1 We find that the decline in test takers is correlated with a decline in first-year law school students. Since fall 2010, the number of first-year law school students has declined dramatically and is now at levels last seen during the late 1990s when there were around 20 fewer law schools. Even more disconcerting for law school leadership is the fact that the outgoing law student class in 2013 exceeded the size of the incoming class of first-year law school students for fall 2012 for the first time in at least the past two decades. Outgoing numbers include those who graduate but exclude attrition from students who decide not to continue their studies after their first or second years of law school. If this trend holds, we believe that a number of institutions will struggle to address the compounding challenge of smaller incoming class sizes. DECEMBER 5,

4 Chart 2 Given the recent decline in operating performance at many of the law schools we rate, we believe the sector faces significant credit risks. Nevertheless, we have observed a number of management strategies that address the current challenges and provide time for the demand environment to improve. Many law schools have increased financial aid and scholarship awards in order to make tuition more affordable and to expand enrollment. Institutional financial aid at universities and colleges generally is lower for graduate programs than it is for undergraduate programs, but some management teams now indicate that law schools are becoming an exception to the graduate school norm.in addition, administrators have slowed tuition growth rates despite the expectation of relatively higher expense inflation. The net effect on credit quality generally has been negative because operating strength has weakened at many law schools as net tuition revenue has started to flatten or even decline, compressing operating margins. We expect operations will continue to be pressured as law schools compete for a shrinking number of prospective students. We believe that high management attentiveness to operating performance and strategies to develop new legal education models, such as part-time enrollment, are positive credit factors when they are accompanied by strong strategic planning. Law schools will need to maintain flexibility in operations by making difficult decisions about how best to right-size operations to current and future enrollment levels. We have heard from many management teams DECEMBER 5,

5 that they are cushioning the blow from lower revenues by cutting labor expenses through attrition and hiring freezes. A handful of schools have also put reductions in health care benefits on the table for potential savings, as well as reductions in variable expenses associated with shortening building and library hours. Administrators have also worked to preserve balance sheet strength by deferring noncritical maintenance projects. A number of law schools have recognized the shrinking pie of potential high quality law school students (i.e., those with high LSAT and GPA's) and have decreased headcount in an effort to maintain quality and reputation. Others have cut full scholarships and have loosened student quality requirements for admissions in an attempt to maintain or grow paying enrollment. These strategies appear to be bifurcating law schools further along the lines of student quality. In general, we believe the reduction in student quality is indicative of weaker demand and a potential risk to future operations. However, we recognize that a deliberate change in these requirements can be a useful strategy for some schools, particularly those that do not possess substantial financial resources. The Credit Quality Gap Widens Between Stand-Alone And Component Law Schools Standard & Poor's rates a handful of independently operated law schools, but when combined with the ratings of universities that have law school components, our ratings cover 123 of the 201 law schools that the American Bar Assn. (ABA) accredits. We currently do not rate any stand-alone law schools that are not ABA-accredited. DECEMBER 5,

6 Chart 3 We follow our higher education criteria when assigning ratings to law schools and when factoring information about component law schools into our analysis of larger public and private universities (see USPF Criteria: Higher Education, published June 19, 2007). Our credit ratings reflect our view of the likelihood that a school will repay its debt by broadly considering factors about the institution's enterprise and financial profile. We rate five of the 26 ABA-accredited stand-alone law schools and public and private universities containing 118 of the 175 ABA-accredited component law schools. Our ratings of the five stand-alone law schools depend solely on the characteristics of the particular law school. These institutions do not benefit from a diversity of programs, and as a result, our ratings on them are more directly linked to our assessment of the legal education market. In contrast, operations of the other 118 law schools contribute, to varying degrees, to their sponsoring university. We assess law school-specific data for these institutions as it relates to the overall university, in terms of program size and financial contribution relative to the rest of the institution. As such, the ratings of the 118 law schools that are components of larger public and private universities reflect the credit strength of the overall institution and are not an indication of the strength of the law school in particular. Nevertheless, law school demand or operating characteristics can and have had an impact on the ratings of public or private universities when the law school makes up a significant portion of the institution's operations. DECEMBER 5,

7 Chart 4 Declining enrollment hurts stand-alone law schools the most The five stand-alone law schools are among the least selective law schools we rate, and the respective ratings reflect this. Their management teams are generally more entrepreneurial and driven by the bottom line than leadership at component law schools. We believe this is partly due to the lack of program diversification at stand-alone institutions relative to comprehensive public and private institutions. We view it as a credit weakness. Stand-alones also typically lack the type of developed fundraising function that characterize many of the public and private higher education institutions we rate. All of the stand-alone law schools we rate have experienced declines in applications, headcount, and operations over the past few years, but operations had generally remained relatively solid until fiscal 2012 and fiscal However, we believe the declines in demand and enrollment appear to be accelerating, consistent with the declines in national Law School Admission Test (LSAT) takers. In one instance, this pressure prevented a law school from meeting its projected enrollment goals and resulted in bond covenant violations, even though it recently constructed a new facility to attract new students. Market-wide reductions in demand and enrollment have put pressure on credit quality among all the stand-alone law schools we rate. Four of the five currently have negative outlooks, which reflects deterioration in the sector over the DECEMBER 5,

8 past couple of years and suggests the likely continued weakening of credit quality in the future. And the outlook on the fifth standalone has been revised back to stable from positive. Chart 5 New York Law School. Enrollment and demand have declined substantially at New York Law School (A-/Negative) since fall 2011, which has led to increasingly tighter operations and culminated in a full-accrual deficit for fiscal The law school has an above-average endowment, relatively low endowment spending rate, and solid financial resources for the rating. However, we believe that the sustained decreases in enrollment, high student fee dependence, and continued operating deficits are problematic and will likely lead to a deterioration in credit quality over time. Brooklyn Law School, N.Y. Brooklyn Law School (BBB+/Negative) has also experienced substantial demand and enrollment declines since fall 2009 despite an increase in tuition discounting. As a result, net tuition revenue has fallen every year since fiscal The law school has strong financial resources that support the rating, and management has historically responded to revenue pressure with good financial management -- generating positive operations on a full-accrual basis. However, for fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2013, operations have been negative amid accelerating enrollment declines. In our opinion, maintenance of the rating will depend on the law school's ability to stabilize enrollment and return operations to positive on a full-accrual basis. Albany Law School, N.Y. Enrollment at Albany Law School (BBB/Stable) has decreased significantly since fall 2008, and the weakening demand profile since fall 2010 has led to net tuition revenue decreases, which has put pressure on operating performance. The rating is supported by still-strong financial resources for the rating category and positive DECEMBER 5,

9 operating surpluses on a full-accrual basis. However, we believe that enrollment will likely stabilize at a lower level and that the law school will need to adjust its enrollment expectations and financial projections accordingly. Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Mich. Thomas M. Cooley Law School (BBB/Negative) has a history of strong operating margins, generally in excess of 10%. However, enrollment has declined significantly -- down 36% since fall Management is currently implementing various cost-reduction efforts and strategic expansion initiatives to maintain strong operations, including an affiliation with Western Michigan University, which has been approved by both schools' governing boards. Cooley has flexible scheduling options (a traditional three-year program, an accelerated program, evening classes, and weekend classes) and good budget discipline, which we view favorably. However, we view the high dependence on student tuition and fees, weak expendable resources, and small fundraising base as credit weaknesses. Furthermore, we believe there is execution risk associated with its expansion outside of Michigan, including the recently opened Tampa Bay, Fla., campus. Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Calif. Countering the overall trend, Thomas Jefferson School of Law (B+/Negative) had expanded enrollment until a slight decline for fall 2013 and has historically generated positive operations on a full-accrual basis. However, operating surpluses have not boosted financial resources fast enough and, as a result, the law school has violated its balance sheet covenants for fiscal 2012 and fiscal Management does not anticipate meeting the financial covenants until 2018; violation of the covenants cannot result in an acceleration of the debt, however. We believe the law school's large amount of debt and very high debt service, which resulted from the construction of a new facility that the school put into service during 2011, are credit weaknesses. In our opinion, there is also enrollment risk given the declining number of law students nationally and recent weakness in headcount that will likely compress operating margins, particularly since the school has no track record of fundraising. Component law school ratings remain high at national and large public universities but are weakening at regional institutions The most selective law schools in the U.S. are typically components of comprehensive public and private higher education institutions. These institutions are more likely to have a national presence (such as Harvard, Yale, or Stanford), large regional presence (such as Emory or University of Southern California), or association with a public flagship (such as University of California, University of Michigan, University of Texas, or University of Virginia). They also often have diversified debt portfolios that include debt issuances we rate. As a result of most of these institutions having rated debt, our rating distribution for component law schools is quite strong. It closely resembles the rating distribution of the public higher education institutions we rate, with the distribution almost entirely in the 'AAA' (extremely strong capacity to service debt), 'AA' (very strong capacity), and 'A' (strong capacity) categories. Many of these schools have substantial endowments that support their ratings and reduce reliance on operations. Even in the event that these schools experience operating pressures as a result of current demand and enrollment trends, we believe many of these schools will weather the challenges relatively well. Numerous law schools are also components of smaller regional universities and non-flagship public universities, but because they are less likely to issue rated debt, they are less represented in our rating distribution of universities with component law schools. The smaller regional universities and non-flagship public universities generally fall in the 'A' and 'BBB' (low investment-grade) rating categories. These institutions are generally supported by smaller endowments and are more susceptible to negative operating trends in individual programs, such as their law school components. As such, we have recently observed and commented on the credit weakness resulting from negative law school trends at many of these universities. Weak law school demand, as indicated by applications and enrollment, is apparent at Widener University, Pa.; Regent University, Va.; University of Puerto Rico, Pace University, N.Y.; Western New DECEMBER 5,

10 England University, Mass. (with management consequently increasing the use of financial aid); Suffolk University, Mass. (with management reducing the size of the incoming class size by 90 students after several years of headcount declines, but applications increasing slightly for fall 2012); and Nova Southeastern University, Fla. Law school enrollment is not shrinking at all institutions, however. Barry University, Fla., swam against the current and grew its law school enrollment albeit with very weak student quality (as indicated by entering student LSAT scores and grade point average). Almost without exception, law school components with enrollment weakness are underperforming budgeted expectations. Public and private universities are increasingly less able to rely on contributions from law schools to their financial health. Our ratings reflect this risk within the context of the respective larger higher education institutions. Strong Management Will Be Key We believe strong leadership is important as law schools manage treacherous waters. At a time when bold management decisions are a must, we believe that many management teams are developing plans that address the tough market. In our opinion, high turnover of leadership has the potential to either inhibit or accelerate the execution of strategic plans to address current operating challenges. Regardless of the law school type, we find that management teams across the sector are trying different ways to attract students and decrease costs. We believe administrators will continue exploring ways to increase the potential student population by, among other things, offering flexible education options to students who may not be able to attend traditional three-year programs and expanding law-related degree offerings. We also anticipate increased fundraising efforts as a potential release valve in light of the weaknesses in demand and enrollment at law schools. University management teams have historically viewed component law schools as vital to the comprehensive university model. Successful component law schools have often contributed to public and private universities' general funds and subsidized other education programs. Certain smaller regional universities have been willing to subsidize break-even or even below break-even law school operations as a strategy to increase the institution's visibility to generate additional undergraduate demand by association. However, weak or declining law operations also have the potential to diminish the strength of the overall institution. We believe law schools with the largest endowments will be best able to afford increases to their financial aid budgets and maintain student quality. These institutions are also likely to have lower credit volatility because they are able to absorb operational challenges others cannot. Many administrators have determined that historical tuition rate increases are unsustainable, and we believe this shifts the focus to cost containment. Management teams will have to make difficult decisions and changes regarding their enrollment profile and operational models. Ultimately, we expect success to vary from institution to institution and for credit quality to further diverge as weaker institutions continue to struggle. DECEMBER 5,

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