ABA Accreditor For Law Schools Recommends Expanding Distance Learning Opportunities:
The Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, the American Bar Association’s accreditor of law schools, is proposing a new rule for distance education that would nearly double the number of credits law students can earn in distance learning courses before graduating. [Summary of Actions of the Sections Council at its Meeting February 9 10, 2018]
Under the proposal, Standard 306, which concerns distance learning allowed in J.D. programs, would change from an absolute number to a percentage of whatever credits a law school requires for graduation. If adopted, law schools could allow one-third of its required credits be taught online. The current rule limits the number of such credits to 15.
ABA standards now require at least 83 credit hours for graduation although most schools require more, with the usual range being between 86 and 90 credits. As proposed, the revised standard would effectively raise the number of credits for distance learning to at least 28 credit hours and, in many cases, 30 credit hours. Those courses would continue to be subject to other requirements of the standards.
In addition, the proposal would change the current standard’s prohibition on distance learning courses in the first year and allow a school to include up to 10 credits of online courses in the required 1L curriculum.
The proposal would retain the current provision that a course does not become a distance learning course for counting purposes unless more than one-third of the work in the course is done online. Law schools could still be granted variances for more extensive online learning. Currently, three law schools have been granted variances for experimental distance learning programs – Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Southwestern Law School and, during the closed session of this council meeting, Syracuse University College of Law. To date, only Mitchell Hamline has enrolled students in its program.
The council approved the plan at its meeting in San Antonio, Texas, on Feb. 9, and put revised Standard 306 out for Notice and Comment. This and other proposed changes to ABA legal education standards will be the subject of a public hearing April 12 in Washington, D.C. The council then meets in May in Washington and could finalize proposed changes. The final proposal would then go to the ABA House of Delegates for its concurrence in August
Pamela Lysaght, chair of the council’s Standards Review Committee, which recommended the online learning change, said the revision would “provide schools more flexibility.”
The council also approved several other measures, including keeping the current form, with minor modifications, of how it reports employment outcomes for the nation’s 204 ABA-accredited law schools. This is considered important for prospective students concerned about employment opportunities after graduation, particularly at a time of high law school debt. AccessLex Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies legal education, pegs the average debt faced by a new law graduate at about $100,000 for public law schools and above $125,000 for private schools.
The form, one of four options considered by the council, leaves intact how law schools now report employment data of their past graduating class – 10 months after graduation. This includes law-school funded jobs, which will be separately reported.
In other matters the council:
- Approved new language for Rule 53, one of several rules that cover confidentiality of the accreditation process. The revised changes will also be posted for Notice and Comment, with the intention of sending the changes to the ABA House of Delegates at the ABA Annual Meeting in August, should the council finally approve the changes at its meeting in May.
- Received an update from council chair-elect Jeff Lewis, dean emeritus and professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, and Managing Director Barry Currier regarding proposed changes in the structure of the council’s operations, principally to streamline the work of the council and to realize substantial cost savings. Under the outlined scenario, the council’s Standards Review and Accreditation committees would be phased out later this year, with their work being returned to the council. Also, periodic re-accreditation of the nation’s law schools, including site visits to those schools, would occur every 10 years rather than seven years. Depending on whether the changes affect bylaws or standards, the change would have to be approved by either the ABA Board of Governors or the House of Delegates.
- Heard several reports from affiliate groups, or other stakeholders in the legal education arena. Representatives from the Law School Admissions Council reported “positive trends” in law school applications of up more than 10 percent from a year ago at this point in the admissions cycle. Also, officials with the American Association of Law Schools reported that findings from their broad study, “Before the JD,” could be ready this summer. The survey, done in collaboration with the Gallup organization, involved 25,000 college undergraduates and 2,500 first-year law students. The study seeks to provide a deeper understanding of the factors contributing to the intention/decision to pursue a J.D. degree.
The council’s open session agenda, including reports and memorandums, can be found here. The council is an independent arm of the ABA and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as the national accreditor of law schools,