Concordia Law School suffers mass defection after it fails to gain accreditation
on August 29, 2014 at 12:56 PM, updated September 24, 2014 at 3:16 PM
Nearly half of the third- and second-year students at Concordia Law School in Boise, Idaho, have left the school in the last three weeks after it failed to get provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association.
Without accreditation, Concordia Law grads cannot take the Bar exam in Idaho, and most other states, necessary to get a license. At least 48 of the school’s 102 third-year and second-year law students have withdrawn, transferred or taken temporary leave from Concordia, school officials said Thursday.
Concordia Law is the high-stakes diversification effort launched two years ago by tiny Concordia University in Northeast Portland.
It was perhaps the biggest gamble in the Oregon school’s 105-year history to open a law school just as the law business was downsizing and law grads facing six-figure student loan debts were struggling by the thousands to find decent jobs.
The troubles have led to an unprecedented decline in law school enrollment. From a peak of more than 52,000 nationally in 2010, enrollment fell short of 40,000 last year, the lowest level since the 1970s.
But Concordia was undeterred. It opened with a class of 75 in 2012. Full-time tuition at the law school is $29,043, with the total cost of attendance about $43,000 annually. Concordia said scholarships offered by the school lowered the effective tuition to $15,750 a year for the 3-year program.
The situation provides a glimpse into the business of higher education.
Amid difficult times in due to high costs and tough competition, Concordia has launched a dramatic diversification effort, opening the law school and a popular on-line master’s in education program.
The new programs have successfully grown Concordia’s annual revenue from $80 million to $100 million, according to school officials in Portland.
All seemed to be going smoothly at Concordia Law until mid-July, when administrators first met with students and informed them there might be a problem in gaining accreditation. On Aug. 8, the ABA made it official: it was withholding accreditation.
The ABA did not reject Concordia’s bid. Instead, it chose to withhold accreditation and send in a team of “fact finders” to more closely scrutinize the operation.
Neither the national bar association, nor Cathy Silak, the former Idaho Supreme Court justice and founding dean of Concordia Law, would elaborate this week on what is holding up the ABA endorsement.
“The bar’s goal is that all accredited law schools provide a sound program of legal education,” said Barry Currier, the bar’s managing director of accreditation and legal education. “If the school doesn’t meet those standards, it will not be approved. No one is happy for the students who now have a problem they need to have solved. We’re not unaware of that.”
Silak said she’s hopeful the school will get provisional accreditation later this year, or early next. “We’re doing the best we can to achieve provisional accreditation and do what’s best for our students,” she said. “It’s obviously been a tough time for them.”
Indeed, Concordia students have had to abruptly decide whether to transfer, or stick with Concordia and gamble it will win accreditation.
Hardest hit are the third-year students, who find themselves in a painful Catch-22.
If they stay and Concordia doesn’t get accredited, they can’t take the bar exam. If they leave, they become subject to the ABA rule that they can transfer no more than 30 credits — one year’s worth of credit for a full-time student — from an unaccredited law school.
But many of the fulltime third-years have already earned 60 credits. By transferring, they’ll effectively be losing a year’s worth of work, not to mention the thousands of dollars they paid in tuition, fees and other costs.
Matt Comstock is one of the students who has transferred to the University of Idaho. The 32-year-old Boise native was student body president at Concordia Law. He pointed out that Concordia was always clear with its students that it did not yet have accreditation from the bar. He blames the bar more than Concordia for the current problems.
Nevertheless, he couldn’t take the risk of sticking around.
“I would have been going into my third year, but I’m now effectively a second-year after losing 32 credits,” Comstock said. “I just felt it was the decision best for my interests. I need a degree that is accredited by the ABA so I can take the bar exam.”
Others view Concordia in a much harsher light.
“Transferring was a no-brainer,” said one student. “The faculty and administration have not fully appreciated the gravity of the position they’ve placed us in. Having to repeat an entire year is truly devastating.”
The student added that the administration repeatedly assured them they’d be able to take the bar exam even if Concordia did not get provisional accreditation. The student requested anonymity saying others who have talked to the press “have faced harsh consequences.”
Concordia officials deny they told students they could take the bar exam regardless of the accreditation review.
The law school is part of a larger business strategy at Concordia centered on grad students. Its enrollment has more than doubled over the past four years to 5,428, largely due to new advanced degree programs. Particularly effective has been the on-line education program, which is attracting students from all over the nation, school spokeswoman Madeline Turnock said.
More than 4,000 of Concordia students are seeking advanced degrees. Typical of modern higher education, they are borrowing heavily to cover the hefty cost. According to U.S. Department of Education data, Concordia grad students borrowed $48.4 million in the 2012-13 academic year compared to just $8.4 million the prior year.
But the law school’s contribution to Concordia’s bottom line is suddenly in doubt as students flock to in-state rival the University of Idaho Law School.
Jeffrey Dodge, associate law dean at the University of Idaho, said the institution’s phones began “ringing off the hook” in July after Concordia administrators first met with students about the accreditation problem.
“We immediately flew our admissions director down there because these students were in crisis,” Dodge said.
So far, Idaho, the only other law school in the state, has accepted 55 former Concordia law students, Dodge said.
Concordia has offered limited tuition refunds, but only to students who remain at the school and only if it fails to gain accreditation. As the level of the student exodus became clear, the school also offered additional scholarship money — $5,000 to third-years, $3,000 to second-years, $1,000 to first-years — for students who stay at Concordia.