The American Bar Association has confirmed its decision to strip Thomas Jefferson School of Law of its national accreditation, further imperiling the embattled school’s future.
The San Diego school’s loss of its ABA stamp of approval will become effective Dec. 17, the day after the fall semester final exam period ends.
The ABA’s Legal Education Council voted to remove Thomas Jefferson’s accreditation earlier this year because of concerns about its finances, admissions practices and academic program. The school appealed, but an ABA appeals panel upheld the decision, according to a notice posted Thursday.
Thomas Jefferson will now have to submit a teach-out plan to the ABA highlighting how it will assist its current students in completing their law degrees.
“The law school is disappointed by the appeals panel’s decision, and is focused on ensuring that its current students will graduate pursuant to an ABA-approved teach-out plan here at Thomas Jefferson School of Law,” the school said in a statement. “The ABA Council has approved recent teach-outs allowing law schools to remain ABA-accredited in order to grant degrees to current students. While the approval process is pending, the law school will proceed with plans for the Spring 2020 semester as scheduled.”
The school said although it will no longer admit new students into its J.D. program as an ABA-approved school, it plans to continue as a State Bar of California-approved institution.
The State Bar’s Committee of Bar Examiners agreed last year to step in to provide accreditation to Thomas Jefferson contingent “upon the school’s agreement to undergo a full inspection within twelve months of any lapse of ABA accreditation and to pay all inspection fees assessed by the State Bar,” according to a bar spokeswoman.
The biggest benefit of ABA accreditation for law schools is that their graduates are eligible to take the bar exam nationwide, while graduates from state-accredited schools must fulfill additional requirements to take licensing exams outside of California.
On average, students from state-accredited schools do not perform nearly as well on the California bar exam as graduates of ABA institutions and their job prospects are typically not as bright. Thomas Jefferson said it will enroll new students in its state-accredited program beginning next summer.
“These new students will be eligible to sit for the California bar upon graduation, and can become eligible to practice in a number of other states after meeting criteria set out by the bar associations in those states,” the school said.
The loss of ABA accreditation can also prevent a school’s students from obtaining federal loans, but Thomas Jefferson said that won’t be the case for its students. The law school is in the midst of seeking regional accreditation from the WASC Senior College and University Commission, and its candidacy status granted in 2016 permits its students to obtain federal loans.
Some students have also expressed fear the loss of ABA accreditation will prevent them from using their veterans benefits at the law school. The state temporarily withdrew Thomas Jefferson from the GI Bill program for several months last year before reversing course after being rebuked by the federal government.
Thomas Jefferson has been in jeopardy of losing its accreditation since the ABA placed it on probation in November 2017.
The school’s financial struggles date back to its decision to take on significant debt to build an eight-floor, 177,000 square foot building on Island Avenue amid an economic downturn. The state-of-the-art facility opened for classes in 2011, but the school struggled to repay the $130 million in associated debt as interest in law school declined.
The San Diego institution’s graduates have also struggled to pass the bar exam and secure legal jobs. For example, just 25 percent of the school’s first-time test-takers passed the July 2018 California bar exam, the lowest percentage among the state’s 21 ABA-accredited schools.
In hopes of forestalling the loss of its ABA accreditation, the school reduced the number of J.D. students it admitted so it could be more selective in its choices.
The school also moved out of its Island Avenue home last year and worked out a deal where its outstanding debt to bondholders was canceled. Thomas Jefferson now leases space in an office building at 701 B St.
In its statement Thursday, the school said that although changes are ahead, “the board, administration and faculty remain committed to the law school.”
“As it has for fifty years, the law school will continue to play an important role in ensuring that students from diverse communities have opportunities to join the legal profession, serve people and communities in need, and pursue rewarding and satisfying careers,” the school said. “We are proud of our talented and passionate students and equally proud of our graduates and their work.”