It was hard enough to carve out elbowroom, much less a comfort zone with the University of Wisconsin-Madison professors. There were close to 100 students in six of her nine classes.
“I definitely had the experience of being more a number than a name,” she said. “It was almost to the point where I craved to be a second or third year to get into smaller classes.”
The price for such obscurity could go up by 5.5 percent in fall, continuing an annual trend of tuition increases for the UW Law School that’s gone on for five years.
But law school administrators say they recognize the problem and, to the extent that they can, are trying to justify the cost by promoting a personal experience. That starts by controlling incoming class sizes, said Rebecca Scheller, UW Law School’s interim assistant director for admissions and financial aid.
“Rather than have classes with 300 people,” she said, “the focus should be on working with individuals instead of just being a number.”
The UW Law School has generally decreased its first-year admissions during the past five years, other than a spike in 2009 attributed to a surge in applications during the economic meltdown. The school is expecting about 240 students this fall, Scheller said.
She said the school has about a 13-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, and the goal is to at least maintain that by monitoring admissions.
“Perhaps it will go lower in future years,” Scheller said, “but we really want to give first years a chance to build relationships and get familiar with classmates and professors.”
Ricketts, 23, said she knew what to expect as a first year, and she appreciated the few small classes she attended because they built her confidence while learning complicated subject matter.
Still, she said, she questions whether law schools can afford to make small classes the norm for first years.
“I don’t think it’s realistic,” she said. “I personally prefer smaller classes, but I’m not sure it’s feasible with having to pay professors and get all the classes in.”
It’s not feasible, said Margaret Raymond, the new UW Law School dean. Schools, she said, are bound by financial responsibilities, and larger classes always will be a part of the first-year experience.
“We will never have 25 people in every class,” she said. “We just don’t have the resources to do so.”
Raymond said providing value for first-year students is also a matter of striking the right balance between small and large courses, rather than simply targeting a specific admissions number to justify tuition.
“Is getting value out of that education directly related to the entering numbers?” Raymond said. “Of course it’s related, but I’m not sure how directly related it is.”
Prior to joining UW, Raymond spent 16 years as a large-class professor at the University of Iowa Law School. She acknowledged it’s a challenge for first-year students to feel like a part of the law school community.
“It’s hard, and we try to keep an eye on that as professors,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a single factor though.”
Ricketts, who is interning at the Madison office of Godfrey & Kahn SC, said she appreciates anything law schools can do to justify the expense. Of course, she said, law schools that promote smaller class sizes actually could attract more students.
“As a marketing piece,” Ricketts said, “I think students are trying to look for places where they can have that nurturing experience and not just be that face in the crowd.”
Jack Zemlicka can be reached at [email protected].