Iowa law degree initiatives help drive interest

As applicant pool shrinks, schools looking to other ways to draw in students

Students at the University of Iowa law school and a class at Ohio State University listen to a lecture by Professor Herb
Students at the University of Iowa law school and a class at Ohio State University listen to a lecture by Professor Herbert Hovenkamp Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013 at the Boyd Law Building on the University of Iowa Campus in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

For anyone interested in pursuing a law degree, now is the time and the University of Iowa is the place, UI President Sally Mason told a room full of faculty members last week.

After the Iowa Board of Regents earlier this month approved a rare drop in tuition for both resident and non-resident students starting next fall, Mason said, the UI’s nationally recognized law program now is among the best bargains around.

“This really is a great opportunity for some of our young people,” she said. “Our law college is doing everything it can to maintain its quality and increase enrollment.”

Those efforts go beyond the approved 16.4 percent reduction in tuition — which translates to a drop from $47,252 to $39,500 for nonresident Juris Doctor students. The UI law school also is rolling out programs that will, among other things, help students obtain degrees quicker and provide them with a broader range of course options.

“We constantly are looking at what we are offering and teaching and what we could do different or better,” said Gail Agrawal, UI College of Law dean.

One new initiative is the “3+3 admissions program,” which allows undergraduate students to shave a year off their bachelor’s degree by applying to law school early and using the first year of their three-year law program to complete their undergraduate degree.

The UI College of Law and Drake University Law School are offering this program for students statewide – including for students at Iowa State University and, potentially, the University of Northern Iowa and some private colleges, Agrawal said.

“They can finish their degree in six years instead of seven,” she said.

And, for the first time this fall, a UI law professor participated in a distance learning program that partnered with Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, to bolster course offerings for law students at both schools. Through cameras, microphones and video monitors, OSU students took a law course from a UI professor this past fall, and UI students will take an OSU course in the spring.

“We have created a classroom that would enable us to share with other schools and enrich our curriculum in areas where we didn’t have a faculty member on campus but we did have student interest,” Agrawal said.

Distance learning

The pool of qualified applicants to the UI law school has suffered of late – falling from 287 in 2010 to 173 in 2012 – mirroring a regional and national shift away from interest in the legal profession. Concerns over how shrinking enrollment will affect the UI College of Law, its courses and staffing partly is behind Agrawal’s decision to pursue course sharing with other universities.

“As the applicant pool nationally shrinks, law schools will shrink over time,” she said. “And if we shrink, what affect will that have on our ability to provide a niche legal education to students?”

UI law professor Herbert Hovenkamp, who specializes in anti-trust law, was first in the UI College of Law to try teaching both students on and off campus at the same time this fall.

On large screens, during one of the distance course’s final sessions, OSU students could be seen nodding and taking notes while Hovenkamp advised them on the upcoming exam and what will be covered.

“They can all see me, and I can see them,” Hovenkamp said. “There is a fifth channel that is for the power points – for slides, notes and lectures – things like that. They can see that as well.”

His antitrust class for the fall included about 35 UI students and 10 OSU students. Microphones are mounted at student desks with buttons they must press to talk.

“As soon as a student pushes the button, the camera points,” Hovenkamp said.

And although most days went seamlessly, Hovenkamp recalled one day that classes had to be cancelled because the PowerPoint screen at OSU failed.

“It’s a little challenging because we have to keep track of the electronics,” he said. “It’s also a little more difficult to get a conversation going with a remote group.”

But, he said, the technology will allow Iowa to offer courses it wouldn’t have been able to before. In the spring, UI law students will have the chance take an election law course from an OSU professor.

“One of the real advantages in distance learning is that it can help law schools fill gaps in subject matter where hiring a whole professor would be very expensive,” he said.

“We have spent this semester working out the bugs, and we have invested in the technology,” he said. “So we will get more out of it when we do it again.”

Faster degree

The new “3+3” degree program is another tool university officials in Iowa are using to encourage students down the legal path.

The idea is that, in a student’s third year as an undergraduate, he or she would apply to law school — going through the admissions process like any traditional student. If accepted, the student would start law school in what would have been his or her senior year.

“At the end of that first year of law school, our agreement is that the student would be awarded an undergraduate degree, and two years later — after three years of law — they also would have a law degree,” UI College of Law Dean Agrawal said.

Not only does the program benefit students wanting to save money and time in class, it could keep Iowa undergraduate students from leaving the state for a law degree.

For example, Iowa State offers a pre-law program but no graduate law program. Now, through this partnership, undergraduates at ISU — not just those at the UI or Drake — could save tuition by staying in the state for their graduate degree.

Beate Schmittmann, dean of ISU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said ISU already has students expressing interest in the program, which works with each individual to determine which undergraduate courses can count toward the law degree.

“We do a map and match the Iowa State requirements with those of the law school’s first year,” Schmittmann said.

Iowa State typically has about 250 students enrolled in its pre-law program, and many of them already apply to the UI or Drake for law school, Schmittmann said.

“So I think we will have good interest in the program,” she said. “I would imagine the first students are going to be in the program within the next semester — and more than just one.”

Agrawal said it’s too soon to tell if applications are up for next fall, as the application and admission process only recently began. And the law school might be willing to accept later applications this year due to the roll out of the new degree program, she said.

That, along with its other initiatives, could make for a “nice strong pool this year,” Agrawal said.“If we compare where we are this year with where we were last year, we are seeing a nice increase up,” she said. 

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.