It’s a mere formality. Every five years, the Department of Education renews the ABA’s power to accredit law schools. The June 2016 session before a DOE advisory committee (NACIQI) was supposed to be just another step in the rubber-stamping process. The NACIQI staff had recommended approval. The committee’s three-day session contemplated action on a dozen other accrediting bodies, ranging from the American Psychological Association to the American Theological Schools. Sandwiched between acupuncture and health education, the agenda contemplated an hour for the ABA.
What could go wrong?
For starters, committee members grilled the ABA’s representatives for an entire afternoon.
Questions About Law Student Debt?
First up for the ABA was the chair of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, Arizona Supreme Court Justice Rebecca White Berch. A committee member asked how the ABA assessed schools based on the interrelationship between student debt, bar passage rate, and graduate placement rates. Justice Berch said the ABA was looking “for a bar passing rate of 75 percent…. [W]as that part of your question?”
Actually, that was just a proposal set for an ABA Section hearing on August 6, but it wasn’t what the NACIQI had in mind.
NACIQI Member: “Sorry, no. I think my question also went to concern related to debt that students incurred while in law school and relationship of that to placement.”
ABA Managing Director Barry Currier tried to field that one:
“With respect to debt, we have been following a disclosure model for a number of years now and a lot of information is disclosed… [W]e collect information about student borrowing, but it is currently not part of the consumer information that schools are required to post with us… [T]here is no standard about how much debt is too much debt at this point in time.”
Let the squirming begin.
“So it may be,” Currier continued, “that as evidence mounts that students don’t shop very effectively and that as uncapped student loans are available, that we need to be more paternalistic, if you will, or more — we may need to make more information required and adopt standards around how much debt is too much debt.”
NACIQI: “What would be an appropriate placement rate for a law school?”
Currier: “Well our standards do not require any specific employment…[W]e don’t have a specific standard that a school must achieve in terms of placement.”
NACIQI: “But you are the ones who identified that legal education is very expensive… And if they can’t find a job it wrecks their lives.”
NACIQI: “[Y]ou can tell a lot from some of these low performing schools. And a school that sticks out to me is Whittier Law School in California… [T]he enrollment has dropped 51 percent since 2010, yet tuition has increased 31 percent since 2008.”
He wasn’t finished.
“Over 105 million dollars of Title IV funding has gone into this school. All the while, one in four graduates of this law school has obtained a full-time attorney job within nine months… Appalachian School of Law, University of LaVerne, Golden Gate, all have abysmal placement rates… [S]o I guess my question is specifically related to these low performing institutions: what are you guys doing?”
Then he answered his own question:
“[W]hen we look at these low performing schools, you guys are doing absolutely nothing.”
Can We Talk About Something Else?
Justice Berch’s attempt to change the subject was unavailing.
NACIQI: “We are talking about student debt, right, so — I guess you are not answering my question, and so I would like for us to stay on that… I just want to make sure we are talking about what is your responsibility and your response to these lower performing schools. I mean, have they been put on probation? That’s my first question.”
Justice Berch: You make a valid point. The answer is — has anyone yet been put on probation? No…”
NACIQI: “How many institutions have you denied accreditation to for low pass rates?
Justice Berch: For low pass rates alone, none.”
NACIQI: “Over the past five years how many institutions have you withdrawn your accreditation from?”
Currier: “Zero, zero.”
You Think The ABA Can’t Do The Job?
During the NACIQI’s discussion on the motion to recommend renewal of the ABA’s accreditation power, one member put the problem bluntly:
“I am troubled that the ABA just simply isn’t independent enough for this responsibility… I find it very difficult to think that they are going to be objective enough to continue to carry out this responsibility. And I reluctantly conclude that the ABA is not the appropriate accreditor for our law schools…[T]he crushing debt load on thousands and thousands of students is too serious for us… And I think the debt load is not going to get better if we say yes to this motion.”
Another member added: “I think that objectivity is important as you go through this process, so I would think an independent body that does not have the conflict of interest that the ABA has.”
It’s Worse Than They Thought
The NACIQI didn’t consider a recent illustration of the ABA’s independence problems. Former ABA President Dennis Archer is chairman of the national policy board of Infilaw — a consortium of three for-profit law schools. At those schools — Arizona Summit, Florida Coastal, and the Charlotte School of Law — students graduate with six-figure debt and dismal prospects for a meaningful job requiring bar passage. (Full-time long-term JD-required job placement rate ten months after 2015 graduation: Arizona Summit — 40 percent; Florida Coastal — 39 percent; Charlotte — 26 percent.)
On November 18, 2013, Archer and Infilaw’s chief executive officer co-signed a seven-page tour de force warning the DOE about the perils of applying the “Gainful Employment Rule” to “proprietary law schools and first professional degree schools in general.” The letter (on Infilaw stationery) argued, among other things, that the proposed rule was unnecessary because the ABA — as an accrediting body — ensures that InfiLaw “must offer an education that will help students achieve their goals.”
Six months later, Archer became chairman of the ABA’s Task Force on the Financing Legal Education. A year later — June 2015 — the Task Force acknowledged that 25 percent of law schools obtain at least 88 percent of their revenues from tuition. But it refused to recommend an obvious remedy: financial penalties for schools where students incur massive law school debt in exchange for dismal long-term JD-required job prospects.
The Task Force’s recommendations were embarrassingly inadequate, but the ABA House of Delegates accepted them.
One More Chance?
The ABA’s culture of self-interest and insularity has now created a bigger mess. Some NACIQI members favored the “nuclear” option: recommending denial of the ABA’s accrediting authority altogether. The committee opted to send a “clear message” through less draconian means.
The final recommendation was to give the ABA a 12-month period during which it would have no power to accredit new law schools. Thereafter, the ABA would report its progress in addressing the committee’s concerns, including the massive debt that students are incurring at law schools with poor JD-required placement rates.
As one member put it, “It is great to collect data, but they don’t have any standard on placement. What’s the point of collecting data if you can’t…use the data to help the students and protect the students…”
Another member summarized the committee’s view of the ABA: “This feels like an Agency that is out of step with a crisis in its profession, out of step with the changes in higher ed, and out of step with the plight of the students that are going through the law schools.”
The day of reckoning may not be at hand, but it’s getting closer.