Accelerated programs, separate accreditations and a merger of campuses.
This is the current state of law school affairs.
Last month, the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University announced the launch of "Fast Forward," a two-year program that will begin accepting applications in June.
Earlier this month, the Penn State trustees opted to move forward with a plan to pursue accreditations for its law schools in Carlisle and State College.
Meanwhile, the Rutgers School of Law is combining its Newark and Camden campuses.
"The world is becoming increasingly competitive for law school students to gain employment," said David Kleppinger, chairman of Harrisburg-based McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC. "That is driven by some legal work abroad and compression of the economy. Growth and demand for legal services is not as great as it was pre-recession."
In this competitive environment for higher education, new alternatives such as an accelerated offering could benefit not only the strong students but also the school.
"The incentive to do this is to give a special cohort of students the ability to get a degree more quickly, which saves a year of living expenses," said Roger Dennis, dean of the Earle Mack School of Law.
Drexel's new program will require the same number of credits as the traditional three-year course, while offering the same opportunities for hands-on learning through co-op placements, clinical work and pro bono service.
The cost will also be the same — around $40,000 per year, Dennis said.
The goal is not to increase enrollment, but rather to appeal to students looking for a shorter enrollment period who want to get out into the workforce sooner, he said. Law school applications have steadily declined in recent years.
"For a student able to take on that level of intensity, it's absolutely a good thing," Dennis said.
Drexel is aiming for 130 new students in the fall. It will launch the two-year program in May 2014. The school is aiming to have 30 students in the Fast Forward program, which would reduce the number of three-year recruits to about 100.
The school will allow students to decelerate to the three-year schedule if they find the program too intense.
Several other law schools nationally have gone to a two-year offering, including Northwestern.
"I think probably more will look at it," Kleppinger said. "Law school is getting very expensive, and more students are graduating with a greater degree of debt."
However, he said, he is not totally sold on the idea from a workforce-preparedness standpoint.
"The motivation should be, what is the appropriate amount of law school instruction needed to produce high-quality, ethical lawyers?" Kleppinger said. "The jury is out on whether that can be done in two years. We even have challenges in accomplishing objectives in three-year programs."
The American Bar Association has received the application from Penn State to begin consideration of separate accreditations for Carlisle and State College.
Penn State is required to continue operating a three-year law school in Carlisle until 2025 as part of an agreement with the Cumberland County Redevelopment Authority for state economic development assistance.
"Because the university is contractually obliged to maintain mirror-image JD programs at each campus — each with first-, second- and third-year classes — it makes more sense and will be more attractive to students to offer somewhat different and distinct educational programs at each campus, rather than the identical program of a unified law school," McConnaughay said prior to the approval from the trustees.
The independent campuses, which would remain a single academic unit of Penn State, increase student choice and the ability of each campus to attract top students, the dean said.
McConnaughay has said he expects to see Carlisle go back to the traditional focus of the Dickinson School of Law before the merger, which was maintaining a strong regional presence and producing more community-based lawyers. The State College campus would be geared more toward the national and international.
"It is mistaken to assume separate campus accreditation means increased total enrollment," he said. "Our planning, in fact, predicts fewer JD students than the number necessary to meet the expenses of the unified enterprise."
Penn State is seeking separate campus admissions in the 2014-15 academic year.