Margaret Kocaj has one more semester before she earns her degree from Charlotte School of Law.
Now she doesn’t know whether she will get a diploma or even if she has a school.
On Monday, Kocaj and CSL’s 700 other students at the for-profit school learned that the Department of Education will cut off millions of dollars in student loans and other financial assistance on Dec. 31. That’s money that most of the students need to continue their classes.
The government’s reason: a “substantial and persistent” failure by Charlotte School of Law to meet admission and curriculum standards while intentionally misleading current and prospective students about the extent of its problems.
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Two days after the announcement, it’s unclear how many students will be affected. Federal education officials say that during the 2015-16 academic year, CSL students received almost $50 million in aid, most of it in the form of student loans.
Charlotte School of Law leaders, who have declined to answer questions in the wake of the DOE’s announcement, have not said whether CSL will resume classes on Jan. 14 as scheduled. In brief statements published on the school’s website, the administrators contend that they were blindsided by the government’s action and are strategizing how best to challenge it.
A school spokeswoman says the administration has pledged to update students, faculty and alumni every 24 hours, even if there’s nothing new to share about the ongoing crisis.
Kocaj and several other students – scrambling to arrange alternative financing or considering moves to other law schools – say they no longer trust what their school has to say.
An online series of demands circulating among CSL students calls on the school to submit all grades by the end of the year so students wanting to transfer can apply to new schools. The petition also says students scheduled to graduate in May should be allowed to attend the school for free, and that the administration be restructured and/or replaced.
“We keep being told that the administration was so surprised,” Kocaj said. “Then you read what the government released. How can you possibly have been surprised?”
Indeed, federal documents indicate that Charlotte School of Law has been the subject of intense scrutiny from the accrediting American Bar Association dating back to March 2014. In the time since, the school has repeatedly been found lacking on admissions, academic rigor and the bar exam pass rates of its graduates. None of these problems were publicly disclosed until the ABA formally put the school on probation in November. The announcement came two weeks before final exams began.
During an October meeting to discuss CSL’s noncompliance, Jay Conison, the school’s dean, and other leaders did not dispute the bar association’s findings. Instead, they asked the bar to drop the terms “substantial and persistent” from its report and to suspend the requirement that the school had to publicly acknowledge its systemic failures.
Why? According to government documents, Conison and the others feared that any announcement would make it harder for Charlotte School of Law to recruit and keep students, who pay some $60,000 in tuition and expenses each year to attend.
Kocaj, who owns her own tax-preparer company in Charlotte, and attends law classes at night, says she feels misled and exploited.
“We didn’t know the DOE had questioned anything,” she said. “Now we’re waiting to hear from a dean that the student body collectively no longer trusts.”
Several students, who asked not to be identified, said the school has cut off access to the offices of Conison and other administrators, which are housed in the College Street high-rise that the school rents for space.
Meanwhile, the school’s web page continued to say Wednesday that CSL remains “fully accredited” by the bar association – a claim that the government says is intentionally misleading.
Chuck Spellman said his daughter, a third-year law student at CSL, found out about the pending loss of her student loans on Facebook. He accuses the school of unethically hiding its problems – leaving the students with a devalued diploma and diminished job prospects even as they amass a debt of up to $200,000.
“Hell, my daughter is getting ready to graduate,” he said. “I’m not faulting the government. I’m faulting what the school did to these kids, out of greed.”
Some CSL students already have contacted law firms in Charlotte and Raleigh to discuss possible legal action against the school.
Raleigh attorney Forest Horne told the Observer Wednesday that after talking with several students, his firm will “vigorously investigate” the school’s actions in the coming days to determine whether students can use the courts to recoup some of their expenses.
The Department of Education’s findings, Horne said, “indicate there was information that should have been passed along to students before they wrote the tuition checks or took out the loans.”
In an open letter released Wednesday afternoon, CSL’s faculty members said they share students’ feelings of “sadness, anger and disappointment” but remained committed to the school. They say they have called on Infilaw, which owns CSL and two other for-profit law schools, to publicly commit to operating the school uptown for the current students while addressing the problems outlined by the Department of Education.
The teachers also want more control of who is admitted and what’s taught.
“These decisions are the subject of our current situation and were made without the benefit of those best able to protect the students’ interests,” the letter says. “The missteps of key decision-makers should never overshadow the positive contributions and capabilities of our students and alumni.”
Federal documents indicate that the school was the subject of extensive ABA scrutiny dating back to a bar association accreditation visit to the school in March 2014. In January 2015, the bar issued its first report that CSL was failing to meet certain standards.
Despite the school’s stated efforts to correct the deficiencies, the ABA issued noncompliance findings again in February and July of this year. The bar’s July report also required Charlotte School of Law to disclose its problems to current and prospective students. The school did not. In fact, the first public announcement of noncompliance came in November, when the ABA announced the formal two-year probation.
Meanwhile, in a 13-page letter sent to CLS President Chidi Ogene on Monday, the Department of Education repeatedly accuses school leaders of deception and dishonesty in how the school described both its ABA standing and the performance of graduates on the bar exam, which on the most recent test was the lowest in the state.
In July, the bar association homed in on 44 different areas – including the rigor of the school’s curriculum and its admission of students who did not seem prepared for either law school classes or passing the bar exam. School efforts to address the problem areas “have not proven effective or reliable,” the DOE’s letter said.
Two months later, when Ogene and Conison met with the ABA to discuss the latest findings, school leaders pressed to keep its noncompliance hidden from faculty and students, the government letter says.
Disclosure, school leaders said at the time, would “effectively tell applicants to beware of attending the Charlotte School of Law … and inevitably create anxiety on the part of high-performing students and make their transfer more likely.”
After the school was placed on probation in November, Ogene and Conison held information sessions for students and faculty. Justin Tolson, who just finished his first year at CSL, said he asked the school’s president why students had not been told about the ABA’s July findings.
“I thought it would blow over,” Tolson remembers Ogene saying, a response confirmed by another student who was on hand. “And we had no reason to believe it would result in probation.”