The embattled Charlotte School of Law, already scrambling to get off of probation, was staggered Monday by a government announcement that could cost the school tens of millions of dollars in student aid.
The Department of Education says it will end federal assistance to the Charlotte student body as of Dec. 31. Much of the money would have come as tuition loans – a devastating loss to a school that has branded itself as a gateway to the legal profession for nontraditional law students.
It’s not clear how many of the for-profit school’s 700 or so students (down from a high of about 1,400) depend on federal aid to meet tuition and expenses estimated at about $60,000 a year. Last year, Charlotte School of Law enrolled about 950 students who received about $48.5 million in federal aid, most of it in student loans.
Starting next semester, hundreds of students must find some other way of staying in school. CSL has until Jan. 3 to dispute the government’s findings. The school is operated by the Infilaw chain, which also has for-profit law schools in Arizona and Florida.
The Observer submitted a series of questions to school leaders on Monday, including any impact the loss of government money for students might have on the start of classes next month.
The school, however, released a three-paragraph statement saying it had “no warning” of the government announcement and “no opportunity” to confer with the Department of Education before the penalties were announced.
While the Department of Education cites the probation the school was placed under by the American Bar Association on Nov. 17, it “ignores the fact that the school remains ABA accredited while it is on probation and is working to take steps to address the issues,” the statement said.
In making the surprise announcement, federal officials accused Charlotte School of Law of being “dishonest” and “misleading” in describing the education it offered and the likelihood of its students becoming lawyers. The bar association, which accredits law schools, put the school on two year’s probation last month, citing similar complaints.
“The ABA repeatedly found that Charlotte School of Law does not prepare students for participation in the legal profession. Yet CSL continuously misrepresented itself to current and prospective students as hitting the mark,” said Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell. “CSL’s actions were misleading and dishonest. We can no longer allow them continued access to federal student aid.”
Early reaction from the community followed a similar bent.
“The misrepresentations made by the Charlotte School of Law and … Infilaw are astounding,” said Jonathan Sink, legislative liaison for Mecklenburg County. Sink said the government’s decision to cut off aid to the school was not surprising but remained “a devastating blow to hardworking students and alumni.”
In November, the school’s dean, Jay Conison, said CSL already had a comprehensive plan in place to raise requirements for incoming students and adding programs to improve their chances on the bar exam. He pledged that the school would be back in good standing within the bar association’s two-year probationary window, and he assured students that federal loans were still available.
Now they apparently are not, and the tone of the government’s announcement indicates that officials are no longer willing to wait and see if Charlotte School of Law can fulfill its promises.
The school, which opened in 2006, was first accredited by the bar association in 2011. Since the economic crash of 2008, enrollment and bar exam test scores have been falling steadily. On last summer’s exam, the passing rate by CSL graduates was 45 percent – the lowest in the state and a full 20 percentage points beneath the state average.
In response to falling enrollment numbers that have hit law schools nationwide, CSL has been forced to recruit more at-risk students who have less chance of passing the bar while still being saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt.
The Department of Education says it acted because the school repeatedly failed to meet ABA standards while making “substantial misrepresentations to current and prospective students” about its standing and the “likelihood that its graduates would pass the bar exam.”
“Both findings merit denial of the school’s request for continued participation in the federal student aid programs,” federal officials said in their Monday statement, adding that they were withholding federal aid to “vigorously protect students, safeguard taxpayer dollars, and increase institutional accountability.”
In their statement, school leaders said they are working both to respond to the government and “most importantly, protect our students.”