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Sen. Grassley Questions ABA’s Law School Accreditation Process

Posted Jul 13, 2011 12:57 PM CDT
By Mark Hansen

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A second U.S. senator is raising questions about the quality of the ABA's law school accreditation process.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), in a letter (PDF) Monday to ABA President Stephen N. Zack, is seeking a written response to a detailed list of 31 questions about the ways in which the association's accrediting arm assesses a law school's eligibility for accreditation, including whether it keeps any data on the number and value of merit-based scholarships schools offer, whether it sponsors any educational programs to help students assess how much student debt they can afford to take on and how many schools it has accredited in the last 20 years.

In the letter, Grassley cited a report last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education saying the ABA's Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, the U.S. Department of Education's recognized accreditor of law schools, had been found noncompliant with 17 department regulations by a federal panel that reviews accrediting agencies, including failing to consider student-loan default rates in assessing programs; having no set policy for handling student complaints; and not having a standard for job placement by its member institutions.

"My concern is that the ABA, which has the power to accredit law schools, was barely granted renewed recognition by the U.S. Department of Education's accreditation experts," Grassley wrote. "Moreover, in the eyes of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the ABA appears to be doing little to assess student-loan default rates in its law school accreditation process."

Grassley also cited two recent articles in the New York Times, including one about first-year law students losing their merit-based scholarships after the first year for failing to maintain a certain grade point average and one about the plight of recent law school grads saddled with debt who can't find jobs to pay off their student loans.

As the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Grassley said he has an interest in the health of the legal profession. And, to the extent that taxpayer dollars are used to fund student loans, he said he has an interest in ensuring that students who take out those loans are in a position to pay them back.

A spokeswoman for Grassley declined to elaborate on the senator's motives. "I think the letter speaks for itself," she said.

Zack issued a statement saying the ABA is in the process of responding to Grassley's request and appreciates his interest in the matter. "We all share the same goal: that the American people have access to justice through representation by good lawyers who have had all the information they need to carefully plan and pursue their legal careers," he said.

Hulett "Bucky" Askew, the ABA Consultant on Legal Education, said that nine of the 17 violations cited by the staff of the DOE were the result of new department regulations and that most of them are now in the process of being corrected. The others will require more work, he said, but should be corrected well within the one-year deadline set by the DOE.

"We don't view this as a huge hurdle we have to clear," he said.

Grassley is now the second member of the U.S. senate to publicly voice concerns over the ABA's accrediting function. For months, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has been pressing the ABA to improve the accuracy and transparency of the job placement information law schools must provide to prospective students.

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