Updates to the ABA Accreditation Standards

On Saturday (3/17), the Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education, will hold an open session to discuss a variety of topics. (Agenda here.) Most importantly, the Council has an action item on Standard 509, also known as the ABA’s consumer information standard. This standard sets the baseline requirements and operating principles for law school disclosure of consumer information.

Relevant Materials:
Standard 509 Clean Copy
Standard 509 Redlined Version
Conditional Scholarship Data Worksheet
Placement Data Worksheet
Placement Data Worksheet (Questionnaire Committee)

We have submitted a memo for the Council’s consideration. In this memo, we urge the Council to adopt the proposed Standard 509 with several small changes. To view the memo, click here for a PDF or view the entire text below the fold. We expect the Council to pass the proposed Standard 509. We hope that it consider integrating some of the changes before the vote, and that the other recommendations receive due consideration when the Council finalizes the two charts and charts’ directions.

Continue reading Updates to the ABA Accreditation Standards

Senator Boxer Questions ABA’s Resistance to Basic Change

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer has once again reached out to the ABA to express concern about the ABA Section of Legal Education’s regulatory failings. This is the third letter from Senator Boxer. The first and second letters, addressed to immediate past ABA President Stephen Zack, both called for the ABA to shore up its oversight responsibilities as it pertains to the provision and verification of consumer information provided by law schools to prospective law students. This letter (full text below), sent to current ABA President William T. (Bill) Robinson III, follows the same themes, though it specifically criticizes the Section’s decision not to require law schools to disclose their legal employment rates for the Class of 2010. It remains clear that the Senator’s interest in law school transparency is not fleeting, but rather the product of genuine concern and disbelief that law schools habitually provide misleading employment information and that the Section of Legal Education is not doing enough to curb institutional misbehavior.

This letter comes in the wake of an editorial we wrote in the National Law Journal. We criticized the Section’s proposed changes to the annual questionnaire because they did not require law schools to disclose their legal employment rates for the Class of 2010.

On Sept. 23, the Section’s Questionnaire Committee will finalize the 2011 questionnaire, which asks about the class of 2010. Additional reforms are slated for 2012. If nothing changes, the section will collect fewer job characteristics data than it has collected in prior years. Apparently, whether a job requires bar passage or only prefers a J.D., or whether a job is full- or part-time, are now too obscure to define without many more meetings.

After the Sept. 23 meeting, nothing changed. In fact, during the meeting certain committee members actually proposed additional ways to count graduate outcomes as desirable, including counting unemployed graduates as employed so long as they had declined a legal offer. While other committee members refuted this attempt to favor law schools over graduates, this sort of protectionism runs counter to basic notions of consumer protection and has no place in the regulation of our country’s law schools.

The 2011 questionnaire, which will no longer ask whether a job is legal in nature, is now active and due at the end of this month. While we believe that Senator Boxer’s letter will eventually force the schools to provide the Class of 2010 legal employment rates at each law school, it should not take congressional hand-holding to get the Section to require such basic consumer information.

As Senator Boxer points out in her letter:

In a year when a number of lawsuits alleging consumer protection law violations have been filed against ABA law schools, when major newspapers have devoted thousands of words to problems with law school reporting practices, and when two United States Senators have encouraged significant changes to your policies, it is surprising that the ABA is resorting to half measures instead of tackling a major problem head on.

The letter also follows an announcement yesterday that two law firms are planning to file class action lawsuits against 15 additional ABA-approved law schools. Taken together, the events of this week may indicate that the Section of Legal Education has less time than it thinks to start turning things around.

Senator Boxer’s Letter

Dear Mr. Robinson:

Following the previous correspondence between your predecessor and me concerning law school reporting practices, I am writing to address some unresolved issues. While I applaud the American Bar Association’s Section of Legal Education for addressing other deficiencies with current post-graduation employment and salary reporting requirements, I was very disappointed to learn that the Section decided not to require that law schools report the percentage of their graduates working in the legal profession or the percentage of graduates working in part-time legal jobs in its upcoming questionnaire.

In my two previous letters to your predecessor, I indicated my strong belief that the ABA should ensure that post-graduation employment data provided to prospective law students is truthful and transparent. His responses appeared to indicate a similar interest, but unfortunately it is difficult to square those previous statements with the Section’s recent decision.

According to The National Law Journal, a Washington University law professor has determined that for the Class of 2009, at least thirty law schools had 50 percent or fewer of their graduates in jobs that required a law degree. Data published by the National Association for Law Placement indicates that since 2001, only two- thirds of graduates from all ABA-approved law schools obtained legal jobs.

However, we know that most law schools report that nearly all of their students have jobs shortly after graduation. The difference between the information reported by schools and the real legal employment rate for recent graduates is very troubling. That is why requiring law schools to accurately report the real legal employment rate of their graduates is so important.

In a year when a number of lawsuits alleging consumer protection law violations have been filed against ABA law schools, when major newspapers have devoted thousands of words to problems with law school reporting practices, and when two United States Senators have encouraged significant changes to your policies, it is surprising that the ABA is resorting to half measures instead of tackling a major problem head on.

I also continue to have concerns about the lack of transparency for prospective law students in other areas:

Independent Oversight

The Section of Legal Education failed to address the overwhelming need for independent oversight and auditing of statistics reported by law schools. In September, the University of Illinois was found to have been inaccurately reporting law school admissions statistics, the second such school to have done so in recent months. In addition, many lawsuits have been filed alleging that law schools are violating various state consumer protection laws and false advertising laws.

These developments are very troubling, and without independent verification of the information reported by law schools, the opportunity to file inaccurate reports will remain.

Merit Scholarships

As I noted in a previous letter, the New York Times has detailed the recent increase in the number of merit scholarships offered by law schools and demonstrated how scholarships are being used to convince students with high LSAT scores to attend lower-ranked law schools.

While the opportunity to earn a very expensive law degree at a fraction of the cost can be an attractive option for many students, the Times exposed a major problem with scholarship transparency. Many law schools fail disclose how the school’s grading curve and scholarship conditions can combine to prevent the student from understanding the scholarship’s real value.

It was reported that at one school, 57 percent of first-year students in one class year received a merit scholarship, but only one-third of the students in that entire class could receive a GPA high enough to maintain their scholarships. Students should have more information about the risks of accepting merit scholarships so that they can make fully-informed decisions about their future.

I appreciate the ABA’s willingness to make some changes to its reporting requirements, but I believe it is in the best interest of law students everywhere for the ABA to address these remaining issues as soon as possible. I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator

ABA President Stephen Zack Responds to Sen. Boxer

From the National Law Journal:

Senator Boxer shares our concerns and we appreciate the ongoing dialogue we’re having about the important issues of how law students finance their educations and learn about their employment prospects post-graduation. We’re glad the Senator is “encouraged” and “pleased” by what the American Bar Association and its Council on Legal Education have been doing. – Stephen Zack

Proposing a New Standard to Require Scholarship Retention Information

For prospectives seeking to make an informed decision about attending law school, the need for consumer information extends beyond disclosing post-graduation employment information. They also need to understand how much the degree will cost. Scholarships, grants, fellowships, and stipends (referred to generally as “scholarships”) are increasingly being used to attract stronger students who might otherwise be unwilling to attend a particular program at full cost. Unfortunately, getting honest information about the value of these scholarships can be almost as difficult as figuring out what graduates do after graduation.

The reason for this is that many scholarships are contingent upon achieving a certain level of academic success in law school, either on a semester or yearly basis. And while law schools are quick to point out the number of scholarship recipients or offers made to applicants each year, they are generally silent on how many students retain those scholarships once they’re in school and competing for grades on a curve. For this reason we have submitted a new proposal to the ABA Section of Legal Education. The proposal includes a new Standard [509(d)] and a chart [view here (.xls)].

Merit scholarships with strings attached are nothing new. They’re also not conceptually problematic when a student knows (or should know) what is required to retain the scholarship. Issues arise, however, when the combination of opaque grading curves and conditions bound to that curve obfuscate the meaning of the terms and limit a prospective’s ability to understand the expected value of the scholarship. Even if a scholarship recipient knows what the curve is, the GPA required to retain the scholarship, and that there are others in the class with a similar scholarship, they are still not able to know the real value of the scholarship because they cannot fully appreciate how those facts interrelate. This information is central to computing the price of law school, and the price of a law school is essential to evaluating law schools.

The lack of transparent scholarship retention information is starting to receive more attention: in fact, in addition to our latest proposal (below), it’s also the subject of an article in tomorrow’s New York Times. [Update: online version. The article also links to Professor Jerry Organ’s new paper on the topic. Professor Organ is a member of the Questionnaire Committee; we’ve previously mentioned his important contributions on that front.]

LST’s Proposed Standard 509(d)

(d) A law school must publicly disclose scholarship retention data for all of its students by preparing and posting on its website the attached chart.
 (1) Scholarship retention information shall reflect the scholarship retention data for each student who:
  (a) matriculated in a JD or equivalent degree program at the law school during any of the three previous academic years for full-time students or four previous academic years for part-time students; and
  (b) received a scholarship for all or part of the student’s first year.
 (2) The scholarship retention data must be gathered and disclosed in accordance with the instructions and definitions issued by the Section’s Questionnaire Committee.
 (3) The scholarship retention information about the previous academic year must be posted on the school’s website by October 31 of the following academic year.
 (4) The scholarship retention information posted must remain on the school’s website for at least three years.
 (5) Any scholarship information pertaining to the potential scholarship recipient’s ability to retain the offered scholarship throughout law school must be disclosed to the potential scholarship recipient in any scholarship offer made.
  (a) The terms of the scholarship offer that are relevant to the potential scholarship recipient retaining the scholarship must be disclosed in plain English to the potential scholarship recipient.
  (b) These terms must be accompanied by scholarship retention information about scholarships with the same material retention terms.
 (6) Any scholarship information the law school discloses must be fair, accurate, and not misleading.
 (7) The term scholarship shall mean any scholarship or grant from internal sources (law school or university).

This proposal lays a foundation for putting better information into the hands of prospective law students. Additional definitions and instructions, either as part of an Interpretation to Standard 509(d) or as part of the Questionnaire Committee’s annual questionnaire, will help prevent schools from gaming the requirements and misrepresenting the underlying data.

The Supplemental Chart

The chart referenced in 509(d) [view here (.xls)] aims to show what happens to scholarship recipients during their time in law school. Understanding the chart begins with understanding that, for each anticipated graduation year, the “entering class” is the denominator for the percentage who “began law school with a scholarship or grant.” Every other percentage uses the number of students who “began law school with a scholarship or grant” for an anticipated class year as the denominator. After each academic year passes, a school will then report how many of its original scholarship recipients from the entering class lost their scholarships.

A few other notes:

  • The “entering class” covers all students who matriculated at the school during the previous three (FT) or four (PT) years. Students who matriculate at the start of law school do not, however, necessarily all graduate on time or from the same school. Some students drop out, transfer, take a leave of absence, or are otherwise unable to continue their legal education.
  • The “entering class” figure will never change, regardless of the number of graduates that leave the school. Likewise, students who transfer to the school will never be included in the “entering class.” It will also not include those who, for example, earned a scholarship due to high 1L grades or a commitment to public service. Even if a student changes her anticipated graduation year, the original “entering class” number will not change. This rule caters to the need to find a manageable way to collect and present complex scholarship retention data.

This restrictive definition carries consequences, of course. First, schools might look worse simply because people leave their school. But because the goal is to help prospectives determine the expected value of their scholarships, those who “lost their scholarship” should include students who actually lost their scholarship, as well as those who could have lost it but for the fact that they transferred, dropped out, or took a leave of absence. Someone “could have lost” their scholarship when the school could have exercised its option to not provide the scholarship.

In other words, if the scholarship recipient would have had too low of a GPA to retain the scholarship, the school cannot claim that it would have exempted the student from the scholarship requirements had the student not decided to drop out of school. We assume the school would have exercised its option if they could have because a school could have provided a scholarship without strings in the first place.

509(d)(5) Disclosures

In addition to disclosure to all prospectives through the Standard 509(d) chart, schools will have to disclose certain information to the prospective students it has offered a scholarship. This includes scholarship retention information about scholarships with the same material terms offered to the prospective. For example, the school would need to disclose the retention rate for previous scholarships with a 3.0 cumulative first-year GPA requirement.

The 509(d)(5) disclosure requirement recognizes that the statistics in the Standard 509(d) chart aggregate different classes of scholarships, and that a scholarship recipient should be especially concerned with how easily previous recipients retained the same class of scholarship.

Going Forward

We have submitted this proposal to the two committees in the ABA Section of Legal Education: the Standards Review Committee and the Questionnaire Committee. In the near future, we will try to convince the Section to adopt a final version of LST’s proposed Standard 509(d).

Please do not hesitate to let us know if you see any unresolved problems with either LST’s proposed Standard 509(d) or the accompanying chart.