It took longer than some experts expected, but the recession and the resulting shortage of good jobs have spurred a jump in applications to law schools and a growing interest in graduate programs.
The number of people taking the Law School Admissions Test, for example, rose 20 percent in October, compared with October 2008, reaching an all-time high of 60,746. And the number of Americans who took the Graduate Record Examination in 2009 rose 13 percent, to a record 670,000, compared with the year before, according to the Educational Testing Service, which administers the test. The increase is a sharp reversal from 2008, when the number fell 2 percent even though the recession was already under way.
“There’s a bit of lag time between when people start to worry about the economy and when they get their applications going,” said Wendy Margolis, director of communications for the Law School Admission Council, which administers the L.S.A.T.
Jeffrey S. Brand, dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law, echoed that view.
“I think the crash was so severe that people were kind of catatonic,” Mr. Brand said. “They weren’t sure what to do. They’re coming out of that mode now.”
David G. Payne, the Educational Testing Service’s vice president and chief operating officer for college and graduate programs, said the rise in interest in graduate programs was tied to the troubled economy and increased school recruiting.
“When job creation slows, there’s an increase in the number of people who pursue a graduate degree,” Mr. Payne said.
Officials at many law schools reported substantial increases in applications over last year. Washington University in St. Louis has had a 19 percent year-to-date increase in applications to its college of law. At the University of San Francisco School of Law, applications are up 35 percent over last year, and at the University of Iowa’s College of Law, applications are up 39 percent.
Some increases are more explicable than others. Applications to the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University have risen 54 percent this year, which may be related to its rise in the U.S. News & World Report rankings to 23 in 2009, from 36 the year before.
But at Cornell University’s Law School, whose ranking has remained relatively stable, applications are up 44 percent, and no one is quite sure of the reason for such a large increase.
Richard Geiger, dean of admissions, said: “I’m a little thrown off by the fact that our increase is much bigger than expected. There’s nothing big we’re doing to explain that kind of increase.”
Prebble Q. Ramswell, 37, is among those choosing to return to school after being unable to find work.
A mother with two bachelor’s degrees, one in political science and the other in psychology and sociology, Ms. Ramswell has nearly 10 years of work experience, including six years as an intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Ms. Ramswell lost her job with the C.I.A. when her contract ended last spring. She and her husband, who had also worked for the C.I.A., were both unemployed.
“We were having such a difficult time finding work,” she said. After months of searching, her husband found work in Florida, and the couple and their 4-year-old daughter moved there from Northern Virginia.
“I still had no luck finding anything, so I said to myself, ‘What is it in my life that I have wanted to do, that could make something good of a situation that has turned horribly wrong?’ ”
Ms. Ramswell is now applying for a master’s degree in liberal arts, looking to leverage her background in social science and, ultimately, to become a psychotherapist.
“I’ve realized that it will make me more marketable and open more doors,” she said.
Stephanie E. Neal, 24, also said she was hoping to increase her appeal to employers by returning to school. She graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology in 2008 and has since completed a paralegal certificate and a victim’s assistance certificate. But she has been unemployed since May and is now preparing to take the G.R.E. She lives with her parents in Southern California and said “desperation” has pushed her back toward academia.
“With every job going to someone who has more experience and who is willing to take a pay cut to have a job, I’m left with what amounts to slim pickings,” she said. “With no income, I’ve turned to the idea of higher education.”
“I think people spent the past year in a bit of shell shock,” Mr. Byrd said. “I don’t think people applied at as high a rate because they just didn’t know what to do. They sat there and did nothing.
“Now they’re seeing what they can do, seeing if they can take out loans or mortgages on housing. I think people are coming to grips with reality.”