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Cooley Law enrollment drops as leaders plan lighter future

LANSING — Enrollment at Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School — once the nation’s largest law school — has fallen below 700 students. But the school president is not concerned.

Cooley once had multiple campuses and saw enrollment peak at 3,931 students in 2010. But it has fallen from there for seven straight years. It rose slightly to 1,358 in 2018, then declined during the COVID-19 pandemic to today’s lows. This fall, the school had just 691 between its two campuses in downtown Lansing and Tampa Bay, Fla., according to President James McGrath.

McGrath says reducing enrollment was part of Cooley’s plan before the pandemic. The decision was partly financial—when Cooley closed his Grand Rapids campus, he was able to cut overhead and tuition. But it’s also strategic: to maintain its accreditation, a law school must ensure that 75% of its alumni pass the bar exam within 2 years of graduation. For Cooley, a smaller student body is part of a quality over quantity approach.

The sweet spot is 800 to 900 students, a benchmark Cooley has breached during the pandemic. The school chose not to admit a new class of students in the fall of 2021, since its classes were 100% online.

“We didn’t want to try to recreate the online classroom experience,” McGrath said. “We wanted to make sure we were doing it right.”

James McGrath, the new president of Cooley Law School, pictured in his office Thursday, September 12, 2019.

Yet Cooley finds himself in an uncharted position with no plans for meaningful growth. Instead of trying to force a drastic turnaround, leaders are focused on preparing a smaller, more sustainable student body to keep pushing the bar.

“We’re just going to make us the best law school we can be,” McGrath said.

A smaller, more durable Cooley

Cooley peaked in 2007. Then the financial crisis hit. The school emerged from the recession into a new job market with less demand for new lawyers.

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