Thomas Jefferson School of Law has seen its share of troubles, including a steep decline in enrollment, faculty layoffs and a lawsuit filed by an unemployed grad.
But all of that may seem like the good old days soon.
The American Bar Association (ABA), which accredits law schools, started cracking down on schools that have been accepting at-risk students. And Thomas Jefferson may be next on its list.
The East Village school is one of 11 law schools in the country that have allowed the median Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores of the students they admit to drop below 145. Many experts agree this brings into question whether the students have what it takes to graduate and pass the bar exam.
Thomas Jefferson reported a passage rate of only 31 percent for this past July’s bar exam, a dismal number by any account.
Three of the 11 law schools with low LSAT medians have already been warned by the ABA. They include Charlotte School of Law in North Carolina, which was warned in February 2015 and placed on probation in November.
In December, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) denied the for-profit law school access to federal loans, saying it had been “misleading and dishonest” because it didn’t warn students about the possible probation in February. The for-profit law school likely will have to close unless the DOE reverses its decision.
Thomas Jefferson could be next to come under ABA scrutiny. The ABA is scheduled to review Thomas Jefferson during the 2017-18 school year, something it does every seven years.
While the ABA does not comment on accreditation matters, it has been more aggressive in disciplining law schools since a federal panel of the DOE threatened to strip it of its accrediting ability. The panel wants the ABA to be stricter on matters related to bar exam performance.
Like many law schools, Thomas Jefferson has lowered its admission standards during the past five years as application numbers dropped. In 2010, some 87,900 students in the U.S. applied to law school, and Thomas Jefferson reported a median LSAT of 151. By 2015, the number of applicants had dropped to 54,500, and Thomas Jefferson’s median LSAT had dropped to 143.
The LSAT is used as an indicator of how well a student will do in law school and is often a key factor in judging an applicant’s worthiness.
Thomas Jefferson, which did not return phone calls, is a stand-alone law school, meaning it’s not associated with a larger university. That has led to problems for the largely tuition dependent school. Tax filings show that Thomas Jefferson generates as much as 95 percent of its income from tuition.
And most of that tuition is funded through federal loans. According to U.S. News & World Report, the average loan debt for students graduating from Thomas Jefferson was $172,726 in 2015, the highest in the country.
It appears students aren’t getting much for that investment. Just 59 of its 241 graduates in the Class of 2015 landed full-time, long-term jobs for which a law degree is required. That’s less than 25 percent.
Thomas Jefferson, which is searching for a new dean and president, has been on shaky ground for some time, and it’s not exactly trending in the right direction, given the most recent bar results.
Its financial troubles have been well-documented since it moved into a new $90 million building in East Village in 2011. Soon after, law school applications dropped nationwide, and the school could not make payments on the new building.
It restructured its deal with bondholders, effectively selling the building. It now leases the building, which helped reduce the school’s debt.
“The improved financial stability enables us to continue to focus on improving results for our students in passing the bar and securing jobs in the legal profession,” Dean Thomas F. Guernsey said at the time.
But while its employment numbers have improved modestly, the school’s bar passage rate has continued to decline. And that is the primary thing the ABA looks at. In fact, it requires all schools to achieve a 75 percent bar passage rate, giving graduates a few years to pass. It appears Thomas Jefferson is at risk of falling short of that standard.