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August 20, 2004
East Bay Business Times

Hard times shift applicants to law school

Steven E.F. Brown

During his 40 years teaching law, Jesse Choper has seen them come and seen them go. The Earl Warren professor of public law at UC-Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law has watched the tide of students ebb and flow for more than three decades.

Choper said that many students come to law school because "they don't know what to do with their lives." Hence, applications rise as the economy founders, and fall again when students see they can make money elsewhere.

"When times are good and they see investment bankers at the age of 25 making a million a year, they go to business school," Choper said. "When times are tough, they go to law school."

Indeed, applications for Boalt Hall's 270 spots have increased from 5,244 in 2000 to about 7,800 for this fall.

Other professional and graduate programs have seen similar increases - at least those where the students themselves typically pay the tuition. Such programs tend to rise in popularity as the economy falls. Mid-career professional programs, however, which are more often paid for by companies that employ the students, tend to decline in applications and enrollment as the economy sputters and companies run out of money.

William Ibbs, a professor of construction management in UC-Berkeley's civil and environmental engineering department, said graduate applications for his group in the department have grown, too, though not as headily as at Berkeley's law and business schools.

"We get probably two or three applicants for every one space we can admit," said Ibbs, who has taught at Cal for 17 years. "Our enrollments do run countercyclical to the business cycle."

Berkeley's Haas Business School also saw a spike in applications after the dot-com crash, said Richard Kurovsky, Haas' executive director of marketing and communications. Applications to the school's full-time MBA program peaked at 4,500 in 2001 and have since fallen to between 2,500 and 3,000, Kurovsky said.

"The general axiom is that in bad economic times people are likely to go back to school because they can't get the job they want," said Carl Bellone, associate vice president of academic programs and graduate studies at Cal State Hayward. "The MBA. program has shown that trend also."

But not all graduate and professional programs have been lifted by this rising tide of applicants, particularly those that are part time and paid for not by the students themselves, but by their employers.

Hayward's Bellone said his school - most of whose students work while getting their degrees - lost applicants in computer science after the bust. "We've seen this summer, and expect this fall a significant drop in enrollment because there aren't jobs out there."