ABA Dodges a Bullet, Won't Lose Law School Accreditation Powers

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 26, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The American Bar Association won't lose its ability to accredit new law schools, at least not in the immediate future. The Department of Education informed the bar association last week that it was rejecting a recommendation that it suspend the ABA's power to accredit new law schools for a year.

In June, the National Advisory Council on Institutional Quality and Integrity had recommended the accreditation suspension, after criticizing the association for failing to pay sufficient attention to student achievement. No law schools had lost their accreditation over the past five years, NACIQI noted, and the ABA had continued to accredit new law schools -- even as tuition rose, student success dropped, and the number of legal jobs shrank.

Criticism for the ABA

The ABA's accreditation power is more than just a symbolic stamp of approval. Law school accreditation affects the ability of students to get loans and sit for the bar exam. But some of the ABA's accredited law schools don't always produce great outcomes. Law students at low-performing schools may be stuck with $150,000 of debt (or more) and little chance of passing a bar exam or practicing as lawyers. One new law school, Indiana Tech School of Law, received provisional accreditation from the ABA in March. When the Indiana bar exam rolled around, only one of Indiana Tech's law grads passed the exam.

Those outcomes have left some wondering if the ABA was doing its job. When NACIQI recommended the year-long suspension, it said the ABA hadn't implemented sufficient student achievement standards or probationary sanctions. It also criticized the ABA's audit processes and analysis of graduates' debt loads.

Accreditation Safe for Now

But those failings weren't enough to end the ABA's accreditation powers. In a letter to the managing director of the ABA's Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, the DOE's chief of staff, Emma Vadehra, said that the DOE wouldn't follow NACIQI's recommendation to temporarily suspend the ABA's ability to accredit new schools.

Vadehra also said that she would give the ABA 12 months to come into compliance with federal regulations governing accreditation activities. Those regulations require the ABA to have adequate financial resources for accreditation, the ability to conduct on-site evaluations, and standards that address "measures of program length and the objectives of the degrees or credentials offered," among other requirements.

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