Under the Dome

NC attorney general tells DeVos he is investigating Charlotte School of Law

The Charlotte School of Law
The Charlotte School of Law jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s office has written to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, informing her of its investigation of the troubled for-profit Charlotte School of Law.

The April 12 letter, signed by Special Deputy Attorney General Harriet Worley and Assistant Attorney General Matt Liles, urges protection of students who may be in danger of losing eligibility for loan forgiveness due to the education department’s deadline rules related to withdrawal dates. The letter points out that the school appeared to be about to close and repeatedly shifted dates for its reopening this semester.

The letter was first reported by Politico.

The school’s future has been in doubt since the Obama administration cut off its federal funding. The school has also been on probation from the American Bar Association because of its admissions policies.

The letter says more than half of the for-profit law school’s students have withdrawn. Only 25 percent of students passed the state bar exam in February, the letter said, and the average debt upon graduation is almost $162,000.

The North Carolina officials pointed out various signs that the school is on the brink of closing.

The school’s landlord said that the school is willing to sublet its classroom space and the school paid its city and county taxes 169 days late. Enrollment is below the 500-student minimum target the school had previously set out.

“As you have noted in your public statements, educational institutions must be accountable,” the letter to DeVos said. “Inevitably, some schools will not be a success. When those unsuccessful schools shut down, their former students will be left with long-lasting impacts from debt. If CSL closes, this case will be the first opportunity to establish how your Department will protect students’ interests when post-secondary educational institutions do not succeed.”

Scott Broyles, a popular faculty member at Charlotte School of Law since it opened in 2006, resigned as dean this month after only three weeks on the job. He cited disagreements with the administration over strategies to best serve the school, and frustration with the Department of Education’s continue refusal to release loans to cover tuition and living expenses of the students.

Last fall, the bar association placed the school on probation. The bar cited longstanding shortcomings in its admissions policy, academic rigor and its graduates’ low passage rates on the bar exam that dropped to the lowest in the state.

In December, only weeks before classes were to reopen, the Department of Education made Charlotte Law the first accredited law school ever to be disqualified from the federal student-loan program.

The agency accused the school’s top leaders of trying to hide the seriousness of the problems from teachers and students in order to maintain enrollment along with tuition payments of $40,000 per student.

School leaders appealed, accusing the agency of making a political and punitive decision that left the school and its students with little time to respond.

Last year, Charlotte Law students received almost $50 million from the program to cover tuition and living expenses. Cut off from that money, hundreds transferred. Enrollment dropped over the past year by more than 70 percent to about 220 students. Half of those were scheduled to graduate in May.

Those who stayed struggled to come up for ways to pay for rent, food and classes. The faculty and some school administrators even set up an emergency food bank.

Broyles and other school leaders thought they had an agreement from education officials to extend the loans for students who had received them last semester. But with only weeks remaining in the semester, the money still has not arrived.