Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is pressing the American Bar Association to factor student-loan default rates into its accreditation decisions.
The American Bar Association and 200 law schools it accredits are under growing pressure from Congress to quell complaints that colleges are misleading students about job prospects and saddling graduates with loans they can't afford to repay.
Last week, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., asked the Education Department's investigative arm to examine "the confluence of growing enrollments, steadily increasing tuition rates and allegedly sluggish job placement" at American law schools.
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Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, alarmed by high average borrowing rates, -$68,827 among students at public schools and $106,249 at private - is pressing the bar association to factor student-loan default rates into its accreditation decisions.
Class-action lawsuits against law schools are on the rise, alleging that colleges make factual omissions and bend the truth about how many graduates are working in the field of law.
"A graduate could be working as a barista in Starbucks ... and would be deemed employed," say two lawsuits, filed in August by New York firm Kurzon Strauss. In a motion to dismiss, lawyers representing New York Law School say the school's data meet ABA requirements.
The issue has been heating up throughout the year. Among the developments:
•A federal panel this summer scolded the bar association for failing to comply with 17 federal regulations related to accreditation, a quality-control measure through which the ABA determines which schools can get federal student aid.
•So far this year, class-action lawsuits alleging fraud and related charges have been filed against three law schools. Two lawsuits, for example, allege that New York Law School and Thomas M. Cooley Law School post employment data that omit whether jobs were full-or part-time, temporary or permanent or required a law degree.
Indiana University law professor William Henderson says the grim job market has exposed tactics long-used by law schools in a competitive bid for high rankings - and tuition revenue, much of which comes from federally backed student loans. "We're at this sad point where legal education does not have a really good face-saving way out of this," he says.
The underlying issue is whether the ABA is adequately policing law schools in its gatekeeper role. In a letter this month to the ABA, Boxer expressed concern that law schools were reporting a rosier job placement rate for their graduates than national studies suggest. The National Association for Law Placement, for example, indicates that since 2001, about two-thirds of graduates from all ABA-approved law schools obtained legal jobs, yet "most law schools report that nearly all of their students have jobs shortly after graduation," she notes.
The Princeton Review's just-released "Best 167 Law Schools" lists 111 schools reporting employment rates of 90% or higher after nine months, and an additional 40 report rates from 80% to 89% Yet the non-profit National Association for Law Placement's annual survey of 2010 graduates cited the lowest employment rate since 1996, with just 68% in positions where passing the bar is required, down from 77% in 2007, and 9.4% reporting that they were not working. While ABA-accredited law schools awarded 44,004 degrees that year, a study by the Economic Modeling Specialist estimates that 26,239 jobs were available.
The ABA's section of legal education in August censured Pennsylvania's Villanova University School of Law, which this spring acknowledged doctoring some data, and is reviewing a similar case involving the University of Illinois College of Law. "There is a lot of suspicion and a lot of smoke out there (but) we have received no complaints from other schools. No evidence has been submitted to us," says Hulett "Bucky" Askew, who heads the ABA's legal education section.
An ABA committee also has recommended a change in reporting requirements, beginning with the class of 2011, designed to finalized changes it said would "offer very helpful information to assist prospective law students and graduates in making very important decisions about law school attendance and careers," say an ABA statement.
But critics say the problem goes deeper than that. "These aren't just angry graduates who are upset they didn't get jobs," says Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, a nonprofit that is seeking broader reforms in the law school industry. "The problem is we have a legal education model that's broken."