A law school needs a certain minimum level of enrollment. One study of the feasibility of a law school in Alaska (kudos to Law School Truth Center for the reference) cited an estimate of 75 students per year, which was more than twice as many as any law school in Alaska would attract.
Indeed, 75 is probably close to the minimum for any law school pursuing or maintaining ABA accreditation. A law school of that size might bring in $6M or $7M per year and would probably spend that much or more. Without a hefty subsidy (possible for a public law school), large donations (unlikely), or an unusual source of income (bake sale, anyone?), it could not operate for long with substantially lower enrollment.
Quite a few law schools enrolled fewer than 75 new students last year:
Ohio Northern, 51
Thomas Jefferson, 59
Florida Coastal, 60
North Dakota, 62
District of Columbia, 64
South Dakota, 71
(In addition, Penn State Dickinson and Southern Illinois each enrolled 76.)
Of the ten law schools listed above, all are toilets: nine are in Tier 6, by Old Guy's standard, and the other (Liberty) is in Tier 5. Seven of them have seen enrollment plummet from more than 100 new students per year earlier in the decade. Just a few years ago, therefore, all of them should have been financially viable; a few were even big profit centers, such as Florida Coastal, with 808 students in 2010, and Thomas Jefferson, with 422. Today, however, they are all marginal at best, and some of them are known to dip deep into the red ink.
The three law schools that have not suffered sharp declines from manageably high levels of enrollment all have special circumstances. North Dakota and South Dakota receive subsidies from their respective states. Concordia was established only in 2012 and never has had more than 75 students. Its parent university expected much higher enrollment. Perhaps the governments of the Dakotas will continue to waste money on their respective über-toilet law schools, but Concordia University cannot afford to sustain its über-toilet at a loss for many more years.
To consider the viability of these tiny law schools, let's look at an example. At Appalachian in 2017, total revenue was only $3.5M, with 128 students. Tuition that year brought in $2.3M; the rest came from gifts, grants, contracts, and investments. Expenditures, however, stood at $5.4M, which is more than half again as much as income. That spells bad news, particularly in light of Appalachian's endowment, which was only $4.23M at the end of fiscal 2015 (down 7.55% from the previous year).
How can Appalachian make up an annual shortfall that two years ago came to $1.9M? Consider that the average tuition paid was only $18k per student, although the nominal rate was over $30k. It would thus take well over 100 additional students, or some 35 per class, to save Appalachian. That represents a sudden 70% increase in enrollment. Even with that dramatic and unrealistic increase, Appalachian would not be in the black for three years to come.
Appalachian could instead increase tuition by 70%—to more than $60k, a level surpassed by only a dozen law schools of the Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, and Cornell variety. That strategy too seems unrealistic, although Cooley, charging $53k per year (and most students pay full fare), seems to be getting away with it.
How about borrowing the money? No creditor would lend it when Appalachian obviously could not pay it back.
Can Appalachian sell assets, such as its campus? After all, it does have a pretty brick building, complete with billiard tables in the basement. I haven't bothered to investigate the title to that land, but anyway I find it hard to see who would buy it. What, after all, could be done with it? It's located in tiny Grundy, Virginia, four hours' drive from even a small city such as Asheville, North Carolina. And if a buyer were found, the law school would need new quarters, which would also cost money—and entail a costly an inconvenient move, almost certainly out of the area.
Is there any other way to come up with $1.9M? Selling souvenirs at the bookstore can hardly bring in that much. Appalachian might pray for a donation, but its relatively unaccomplished alumni might not have much money and in any event might be disinclined to give much to their dying über-toilet law school. Might the state give privately held Appalachian a grant? I doubt it. Appalachian appears to be controlled largely by the McGlothlin family, one of whose members is the dean. It would be a poor, and suspicious, recipient of public funding.
Would any institution take Appalachian over? Appalachian has made overtures to various obscure colleges. But why should they want a failed law school that loses a couple of million dollars a year?
I conclude that Appalachian has one foot in the grave. Only a miracle could save it. I doubt whether it can last even two more years.
And much the same is true of most of the other schools on that list. Florida Coastal and Thomas Jefferson have shown signs of imminent shuttering, and some of the others must not be far behind. Liberty, with 72 1Ls last year, may appear to be an outlier on this list; however, it actually brings in very little money: 12% of the students get free tuition (some are even paid to attend!), 74% get discounts of 50% or more, and most of the rest also get a discount. Even by very generous estimates (using discounts of 50% and 10%, respectively, and ignoring the payments made to some students), revenue from tuition cannot exceed $1.3M per year for the entering class, or about $3.9M for all students. That does not cover payroll and benefits for a dean, 23 other full-time professors, 9 adjuncts, and the rest of the staff, never mind Liberty's other expenses.
North Dakota and South Dakota can last indefinitely, if their respective state governments are willing to sustain them at a loss. Better would be to admit that neither of those two large, sparsely populated states needs a law school of its own. Merge them and call them Dakota Law School. Build the school to straddle the border if necessary, perhaps between Ellendale, North Dakota, and Frederick, South Dakota; then each state can lay claim to it. Better yet, close both law schools down and cut a deal with the government of Minnesota so that students from the Dakotas can get their tuition their subsidized by their respective states. The law school at the U of Minnesota also depends on subsidies that the state is tired of paying, so this sort of deal might benefit all three states.