Charlotte School Of Law Should Be More Transparent, Immediately

January 4th, 2017 / By

game of loansEd. note: This post was co-authored with David Frakt, an attorney and the chair of Law School Transparency’s National Advisory Council. This was originally published on Above the Law.

The United States Department of Education (ED) notified Charlotte School of Law on December 19, 2016, that its students would no longer be eligible for federal student loans. The decision, as with the American Bar Association’s decision to put CSL on probation a month earlier, surprised and alarmed CSL students. Since that time, students have reached out to law schools across the country to inquire about attending in the immediate or near future. With no other law schools in Charlotte, North Carolina, there are practical limitations on the choices CSL students face.

Several students report to us that, despite CSL’s assurances, information has been both limited and not particularly useful as they try to assess their options. Furthermore, these students report that administrators have been unavailable to answer questions. The school appears to have completely shut down for winter break from December 22 through January 3 despite the urgency of the situation that has developed in Charlotte. These administrators have likewise not been available to the press since the Education Department’s announcement in December.

It is not yet clear that the school will resume classes on January 9, as scheduled. And even if the school does resume operations next week, students still have an understandable desire to explore available options.

In theory, students have four options.

  1. Continue their classes at CSL. These students would need to cover the more than $22,000 in tuition and fees per semester with a combination of discounts from the law school, cash, and private student loans.
  2. Pause their legal education. Rather than rush into a decision based on incomplete information, students may wish to take a semester off and weigh their options. Under ABA rules, students have up to 84 months within starting law school to obtain all the credits to earn their JD.
  3. Visit at another law school. Students may attend another law school that accepts them as a visitor. They would need to cover tuition and fees at the new school in the same way as they would at CSL — without federal student loans. Some students may be able to complete their degree requirements as a visitor. Otherwise, they may return to CSL (if open) or transfer, though they may lose some credits.
  4. Transfer to another law school. A transfer to another law school would likely be a permanent move. The school’s latest communication to students indicates a pending arrangement with Florida Coastal School of Law (likewise owned by Infilaw) that would guarantee transfer to Coastal. For students with low grades or on academic probation, this may be the only available option. Students wishing to attend another law school will need to obtain admission through the target school’s standard transfer application process.

At this point, CSL students cannot make informed decisions because CSL has not been sufficiently transparent. As such, Law School Transparency has sent CSL a letter with an urgent request for information that will help CSL students make the choice that is best for their personal career ambitions.

Infilaw, which owns Charlotte School of Law and Florida Coastal School of Law, must be transparent about any pending or reasonably foreseeable ABA sanctions at Florida Coastal. As CSL develops its plan for CSL students to transfer to Coastal, they must ensure that CSL students are fully informed about Coastal’s compliance with ABA standards. Students need and deserve to know about the potential for similar problems to emerge at Coastal.

In November, the ABA placed CSL on probation because of its exploitative admissions and retention policies. Coastal’s admissions statistics are not meaningfully different than CSL’s. The majority of students at both schools face extreme risk of failing the bar exam. These two schools also have the highest attrition rates in the country. It’s possible that the ABA has already warned Coastal that it is out of compliance with the ABA standards, much in the way that the ABA warned CSL in February 2016. Indeed, Coastal’s dean announced the school’s intent to raise admissions standards this past fall. Infilaw should disclose any communications from the ABA that in any way indicate potential sanctions against Coastal, including fact-finding inquiries that the ABA will use to evaluate whether the school has sound admissions and retention policies and practices.

Infilaw should be transparent about communication with the U.S. Department of Education regarding Florida Coastal School of Law’s continued participation in the federal student loan program. The ED cited two independent reasons to deny CSL’s participation in the federal student loan program. First, the ED cited CSL’s non-compliance with the ABA standards. Second, the ED cited CSL’s “substantial misrepresentations regarding the nature of its academic program.” The ED based this finding, in part, on CSL’s failure to disclose until November 2016 that the ABA found the school non-compliant with the ABA standards in February 2016. If Coastal has received notice from the ABA about non-compliance, it has not disclosed it to date. That could provide a basis for the ED to take similar action against Coastal.

Coastal might be a reasonable alternative for some CSL students, but it is not fair or ethical or consistent with the school’s fiduciary duty to withhold this information from CSL students considering a transfer (or, for that matter, current Coastal students).

Infilaw should be transparent about its plans to facilitate transfers within the Infilaw System, including moving expense reimbursement, alternative class schedules, tuition discounts, and whatever else students need to ease the transfer after Infilaw and CSL withheld critical information for nine months. Even assuming that Coastal does not face any immediate issues from regulators, Infilaw and CSL should recognize that simply offering students the opportunity to attend another law school in the Infilaw system is not enough to discharge its legal and ethical obligations to students. This is especially true given Infilaw’s financial interest in moving students to one of its schools that has access to federal student loan dollars from one that does not.

Students who choose to relocate 400 miles from Charlotte to Jacksonville will incur substantial costs, including transportation costs, moving expenses, and early lease termination fees. Students who seek to join the bar can ill afford to have negative credit reports or collection actions taken against them for breaching a lease. It is essential that administrators promptly develop and communicate a fair, simple, and transparent approach for students to file for reimbursement.

Charlotte School of Law should clarify whether it will permit and facilitate students who seek to visit another law school this semester. At least a handful of current CSL students have inquired with other law schools about visiting this coming semester. As one law school in North Carolina told us, the obstacles to a visit are not with their school — they are prepared to promptly review and act upon any applications for a visit. Rather, the question is whether CSL will approve the visit, accept the credits towards CSL degree requirements, and waive degree requirements that cannot be met at the visiting school, such as the course on North Carolina distinctions.

The school has sent mixed messages to students about the possibility of visiting at another school. CSL should publish clear guidance on visits as soon as possible, and should do everything possible to facilitate visits for students who request them. We asked Traci Fleury, assistant dean of academic services, for clarification. She did not respond to our phone call.

Charlotte School of Law should devote more resources to student service and administrative offices. Completed applications, whether for a visit or a transfer, typically require a letter of good standing, an official transcript, and, for visits, a letter promising to accept credits from the visiting school. Students report to us that they are still waiting on one or more of these items from CSL. Dean Fleury indicated in an email to a student that a team of five people is working through transfer packets for students. But time is of the essence, and Infilaw schools have been accused of purposefully impeding transfers in the past. Thus the school needs to devote even more resources so that inattentiveness does not prevent students from making informed choices about their futures.

Charlotte School of Law should clarify why it indicated that the school will submit a “teach-out” plan to the ABA in March. A teach-out plan helps students find a reasonable opportunity to complete their program of study. The ABA accreditation rules require a teach-out plan for any school that loses access to the federal student loan program. However, Rule 34 also requires a teach-out if the school intends to cease operations. CSL has already informed students who had been planning to start this month that the “spring start” for which they had been admitted has been canceled. With deadlines for transfer and visits looming, and nearby schools preparing to begin classes as early as tomorrow, CSL should clarify whether the school plans to cease operations in the near future, or if it is even considering such a step, as this will obviously have an impact on the decisions that students make.

While we understand that the situation is fluid, and that the school’s plans may be contingent on a variety of factors that are outside of its control (such as regaining federal funding), CSL must not let uncertainty prevent timely release of information. If in doubt, CSL should err on the side of full disclosure and immediately release any information that could conceivably affect its students’ decisions.

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