Originally published on Above the Law.
More than 90 law school deans have asked their accreditor to halt new standards that would hold schools accountable for very low bar passage rates.
Last October, the Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education & Admissions to the Bar approved two new standards to stop exploitative admissions and retention practices. At a time when demand for law school decreased significantly, a minority of law schools began admitting swaths of students who, after three or more years of legal education, were not adequately equipped to pass the bar exam.
Why would a law school choose to do this? To keep tuition dollars flowing.
Ed. 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.
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.
Originally published on Above the Law
Welcome to the second installment of Caveat Venditor, a series that assesses claims made by law schools to separate truth from fiction. This week we look at Brooklyn Law School’s employment rate of 92.2% posted on its “By The Numbers” infographic.
I noticed this claim on Brooklyn’s website after investigating the concern of a prelaw advisor. At the quadrennial Pre-Law Advisor National Council conference, this prelaw advisor asked what to do when a law school does not meet the accreditation requirements by not publishing the required disclosures. Indeed, Brooklyn was publishing an old report nearly six months after the ABA required them to publish its new one. Brooklyn remedied this problem on Monday, citing an “oversight due to transitions in several administrative departments in the last year.” According to a spokesperson from the law school, the ABA did not follow up with the law school to make sure it published the materials on time or at all.
Originally published on Above the Law.
Last week, Anna Alaburda lost her lawsuit against Thomas Jefferson School of Law. From what one juror said of deliberations, the jury only considered deliberate falsification of the data underlying the statistics she consulted before law school. Systemic deception by law schools, blessed by the ABA, was not on trial. While I am disappointed in the result — I think it would have been an important symbol — I want to talk about the changes that we’ve seen over the last six years on the transparency front. We did not win on every count, but we long-ago declared victory. Here’s why. (more…)
The good news keeps coming for law school reform advocates. The ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has taken its next affirmative step towards holding law schools accountable for their exploitative admissions and retention choices.
Soon, the Council for the Section of Legal Education will publish the proposed ABA accreditation standard changes for public comment. The Council will assess any new information it obtains and consider approving the new standards in October. Although the Council is the final authority for law school accreditation, the ABA House of Delegates will vote in February. The process allows the House a formal but non-binding say in new standards.
Let’s review the proposals. (more…)
Originally published online and in print in the National Law Journal.
In May 2011, Anna Alaburda filed a lawsuit against Thomas Jefferson School of Law alleging that the school in San Diego lured students with deceptive and fraudulent employment statistics in violation of California consumer protection laws. With the trial starting last week, Alaburda’s case highlights how far the law school transparency movement has come in reforming U.S. legal education.
Outsourcing, automation and a thriving legal tech industry have fundamentally changed the legal profession. Law firms large and small closed or laid off huge swaths of attorneys in the wake of the Great Recession. Even recently, in February, Milwaukee’s largest minority-owned firm, Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan, abruptly discontinued its business, laying-off more than 100 attorneys and 200 staffers. Many remaining jobs on the legal market are temporary or paying low wages.
But Alaburda’s claims about an unknown glut of law school graduates predate the financial crisis. After graduating from New York University in 2002 and working for several years, she started law school in 2005. Her lawsuit reflects several decades of unethical marketing from law schools of all types.
When Alaburda applied, Thomas Jefferson and the American Bar Association reported a graduate employment rate north of 80 percent. In court documents, she alleges that she relied on reports about Thomas Jefferson’s success in deciding to enroll.
To say she should have known better is to miss the cultural context in which she made her decision. Until only recently, “education debt is not bad debt” dominated career advice that college provides a positive return on investment. Law school especially has been portrayed as a ticket to financial security or even wealth. Students are told to and, indeed, want to trust the institutions they’re seeking to attend for higher education. To mistrust schools, your advisers and common wisdom required a divergent leap of faith.
Alaburda decided to attend law school before The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, The Washington Post and hundreds of other publications covered misleading employment statistics. Coverage of law school deception started in earnest in April 2010 in this very publication — nearly five years after Alaburda started law school. That fall, after decades of conditioning, law school enrollment peaked while thousands of recent and not-so-recent graduates began to realize they were not alone in feeling duped. Against an overwhelmingly positive cultural backdrop, they misplaced their trust.
Originally published on Above the Law.
In the face of financial pressure from rapidly falling enrollment, law schools have made ethically questionable admissions and student retention decisions. Bar exam pass rates have suffered already; MBE scores are at their lowest point since 1988. With an enormous drop in admissions standards between 2012 and 2013, as well as in the two subsequent years, bar pass rates for the next three years will be even worse.
The current ABA accreditation standards can theoretically hold dozens of schools accountable through the bar passage standard (Standard 316) and the non-exploitation standard (Standard 501). But the bar passage standard, with its six loopholes, is almost impossible to fail. Meanwhile, the ABA Section of Legal Education is paralyzed without an enforceable line between “capable” and “not capable” — the relevant distinction under the non-exploitation standard.
To the Section’s credit, the organization has responded well to criticism — publicly and privately. At the first meeting after my organization asked the Section’s Council to address trends in law school admissions and retention policies, the Council asked a committee to propose changes to the law school accreditation standards. The Standards Review Committee (SRC) has since made three key recommendations:
1) The SRC submitted a new cumulative bar passage standard to the Council. Under the proposal, at least 75% of all graduates that take a bar exam must pass it within two years. This eliminates the six loopholes.
2) The SRC submitted a new interpretation to the non-exploitation standard to the Council. Under the proposal, there would be a rebuttable presumption that a school that experiences a certain percentage of non-transfer attrition has made exploitative admissions choices.
3) The SRC declined to submit new bar passage outcome transparency measures to the Council. Instead, the SRC advised the Council that it already has the authority to issue new transparency requirements under Standard 509. As I wrote previously, I agree and the Council should publish new information as soon as possible.
The Council will consider these proposals at its Friday meeting in Arizona. If satisfied with the first two proposals, the Council will send them out for a few months of notice and comment. If satisfied with the SRC’s analysis of the Council’s existing authority under Standard 509, the Council can immediately take the necessary steps to authorize new disclosures.
Changes to Standard 316 and Standard 501 will see significant pushback. While greater transparency may help some students make better choices, the other two proposals provide objective tools to stop law schools from exploiting students. The combination poses a significant financial threat to any school choosing money over ethics to survive. Unless the admissions climate drastically and rapidly changes, these new standards will cause exploitative schools to shrink further, merge, or shut down.
One argument against both standards is the limit on opportunity. Schools can take fewer chances on students who do not fit traditional profiles if bar passage rates and degree completion must be more seriously considered during admissions and retention decisions. Before the enrollment crash that began in 2011, however, schools were able to fulfill these lofty ideals without preying upon students with low expectations of completing law school or passing the bar. The “opportunity” offered to students with low predictors of academic success is failing the bar exam up to four times, accumulating six figures of debt, and never obtaining a law job. This is an opportunity for schools to bring in cash from federal student loans, not to increase opportunities for students.
Educational opportunity is too important to let opportunists capture the term. Reclaiming the term from reckless schools concerned primarily with survival is essential for an accreditation process that’s supposed to protect the public, not the law schools. If a school cannot muster a 75% bar passage rate after its graduates have had the opportunity to take the bar exam four times, the school does not deserve accreditation. If a school must rely on failing significant portions of the class to ensure compliant bar passage rates, the school does not deserve accreditation.
When a school cannot figure out how to maintain accreditation under such reasonable rules, it should close. Let the void be filled by the schools that can responsibly grow enrollment or new schools with new economic models.
Originally published on Above the Law.
Does the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar do enough to hold law schools accountable through accreditation? People throughout the legal profession, including people at law schools, think the answer is no.
This past weekend, the Section took an important step forward. The Section’s Standards Review Committee is charged with writing the law school accreditation standards, and it’s voted to send a slate of accountability measures to the Council of the Section of Legal Education — the final authority for law school accreditation.
This week’s column is about Standard 316 (the minimum bar passage standard) and Standard 509 (the transparency standard). Next week, I’ll write about the SRC’s proposals for refining the non-exploitation standard, Standard 501.
On December 16th, I wrote a column for Above the Law on the ABA’s annual data dump. In it I highlighted nine schools that “reportedly” eliminated conditional scholarship programs. I used the quoted caveat in my column because I was skeptical that a few of these schools had actually eliminated the program.
One school I contacted was Arizona Summit. The school previously operated a very large conditional scholarship program and had a substantial percentage of students who lost these scholarships after the first year. It would have been a substantial budgetary hit to change the program at Arizona Summit in particular. However, the school’s 509 report indicated that it had. (more…)
This was originally published on Above the Law.
To put it mildly, I’m not a fan of the U.S. News law school rankings. They poison the decision-making process for law students and law schools alike. For students, they cause irrational choices about where to attend or how much to pay. For schools, they produce a host of incentives that do not align with the goal of providing an accessible, affordable legal education.
Because of their undeniable influence, it makes sense to seek methodological changes that nudge schools in a better direction.
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