Legal Education

Federal panel 'sent a signal' to ABA about law school loans and accreditation enforcement

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Department of Education

Concerns about enforcement of accreditation standards and the need for response to law school costs, student debt and lack of lawyer jobs swirled during a Department of Education panel’s discussion that led to their vote to recommend suspending the ABA from accrediting law schools for one year, a transcript of the hearing shows.

The fact that no law schools have had ABA accreditation withdrawn over the past five years, and that the organization continues to accredit new ones while law school tuition rises and the number of jobs in the profession shrinks were all part of the debate before the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity at its June 22 meeting. The group released a transcript (PDF) of the meeting last week.

“This feels like an agency that is out of step with a crisis in its profession,” said Paul LeBlanc, a committee member and president of Southern New Hampshire University, “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 discussion was wide-ranging, and also covered whether the panel even had the power to make such a recommendation under the rules set for it. Some panel members questioned whether the motion, which involved monitoring of accreditation standards and student achievement, addressed the concerns they want addressed.

Committee member Ralph Wolff, an accreditation policy consultant, defended the council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. “There appears to both have been individual actions to law schools and a responsible process to honor data, and so I don’t see, frankly, the legal basis or even the substantive basis to deny recognition of this agency.”

Out of 10 members, six voted in favor of the recommendation. That vote followed a Department of Education staff report that found the council in compliance with core substantive requirements for recognition, and only had minor technical deficiencies to address.

At the end of the session it was noted that, should the Department of Education endorse the recommendation, the council could appeal, delaying any implementation.

The ABA has responded by filing a “confidential” comment, Barry Currier, managing director of accreditation and legal education, told the ABA Journal.

When the panel asked Currier about debt students incurred while in law school, he said the ABA model has been to make schools publish the information, along with employment numbers, so students could to make their own decisions.

“So it may be 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,” Currier said. “We may need to make more information required and adopt standards around how much debt is too much debt.”

In an interview with the ABA Journal, Currier said that setting a standard for law school loan amounts has never been considered. “Really it’s just fruitless to go into a longer conversation about it. It certainly would be complex,” he said.

Two years ago, the Department of Education tied career-college student aid to recent graduates’ income/loan debt ratios, and some wonder if law schools might be next. And at a continuation of the meeting, the panel voted to de-recognize the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, a large group that accredits many for-profit colleges.

“Committee members clearly were frustrated with the ABA council’s failure to address student debt, employment prospects and bar passage. They see those issues as integral to educational quality,” says Deborah Merritt, an Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law professor who writes at Law School Cafe.

“I think it is absolutely important again that we send a signal,” said committee member Simon Boehme, a graduate of Maynooth University’s Kennedy Institute for Conflict Intervention in Kildare, Ireland, “and this is not the first time that this committee in this meeting and in the future is going to be asked to take on tough questions.”

Updated Aug. 2 to clarify reference to Boehme.

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