Alumni leaders started suspecting N.C. Central University’s law school might wind up in trouble with the American Bar Association when they saw last summer that slightly more than a third of the 2016-17 first-year class had washed out.
Now, they’re waiting to see how the school answers the ABA’s December demand for a report on admission standards, and how they can help it deal with the problem, said Greg Doucette, the Durham lawyer who’s president of the School of Law Alumni Association.
“Once we’ve got a handle on what’s actually taking place, and what the administration’s response is going to be, then we can figure out how best we can help,’ Doucette said. The association, which meets Saturday, has “the ability to effect tangible change” via fundraising to support the school or by lending a hand with things like student bar-exam prep, he said.
ABA accreditors ask law schools to “only admit applicants who appear capable of satisfactorily completing [a] program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.” The notice to NCCU doesn’t go into specific complaints, but outside observers have pointed to the “attrition” rate of first-year students and a low passing rate for graduates in recent state bar examinations.
The attrition statistics figure in the annual, publicly available “509 reports” law schools submit to the ABA that also include data on enrollment, incoming students’ test scores and undergraduate grades, faculty size and other matters.
NCCU law’s first-year attrition rate had floated between 20 and 30 percent for four years before spiking to 34.3 percent in 2016 and 37.7 percent in 2017.
“We knew something was bad, we just didn’t know what was coming,” he said, adding before the ABA letter, “none of us [outside the NCCU administration] knew officially what was going on.”
The attrition percentage for 2017 represented the loss of 69 students from an incoming class of 183 the year before.
Washouts are not unexpected or unusual at NCCU, “a school of opportunity” that by practice and policy grades on a “C curve” and sends first-years home if they can’t maintain at least a 2.0 average, Doucette said.
Two other area law schools, at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University, use a different operating philosophy, screening applicants more tightly than NCCU on the front end but grading them more loosely after they’ve arrived. Both UNC-CH and Duke ask their law professors to grade first-years on a curve that clusters their scores in the B range.
UNC Law sets a 2.2 minimum grade-point average – a bit above a C – for first-years to continue into their second year. Duke sets a 1.9 minimum – a bit below a C – to continue with additional limits on the number of credits a student can fail before washing out.
In practice, the UNC and Duke law schools wash out relatively few of their students each year. Since 2011, UNC’s attrition rate for first-years has never topped 9.7 percent and Duke’s has never topped 3.2 percent.
‘The real world’
NCCU’s policy “contributes to a feeling among the students there’s a real prospect they could go home if they don’t get their [act] together,” Doucette said. “Students at Carolina and Duke know they’re going to get a quality education, but they also know they’re not going home.”
Or as 2001 graduate Anthony Norman put it, “Central’s law school prepares students for the real world, and the real world is not a comfortable place. As such, a Central student is guaranteed one year of school but not three.”
Despite their schools’ low wash-out rates, Duke and UNC students typically fare better on the North Carolina bar exam than their counterparts at Central. Usually 80 to 90 percent of their first-time test takers pass, while NCCU Law’s first-time pass rate fluctuates from the mid-50s to the mid-70s. Reports in the trade press indicate that Central’s pass rate last summer dropped to 53.7 percent for all test takers and 56.7 percent for first-timers.
Again, the schools’ admission practices vary.
Duke, a top-10 program in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, only grants admission to between 15 and 23 percent of the students who apply to its law school, and the admitted students typically have a median undergraduate GPA of about 3.76. UNC and NCCU have applicant-admission rates that since 2013 have clustered in the 40 to 50 percent range, but UNC’s median incoming GPA hovers around 3.5 and Central’s around 3.2.
The differences in practice between UNC and NCCU, both public institutions, have their roots in history and the UNC system. UNC is the country’s oldest public university, while NCCU is a historically black university founded in 1910 because the state in those days and for decades to come didn’t allow blacks to attend college with whites.
Since desegregation – and particularly since the early 1970s creation of the present UNC system – the state’s typically offered major academic programs like law and engineering on at least two system campuses, one with relatively tight admission standards and another with looser ones. That’s the “school of opportunity” thinking Doucette referred to.
Whether that concept endures remains to be seen. Doucette said his organization doesn’t think NCCU Law’s accreditation is in jeopardy. But law dean Phyliss Craig-Taylor has said the school is “examining our admissions process” and adding “more data analytics” to it.
“With new standards and new interpretations, new strategies and approaches are necessary,” she said, alluding to the ABA query NCCU has to answer by Feb. 1.
More broadly, the ABA push comes during a glut in the market for lawyers, and amid a nationwide debate in higher-education and government circles about student costs and debt.
Doucette suspects the NCCU school’s problems follow an early-decade spike in enrollment that wasn’t accompanied by increased faculty hiring. The cost question shouldn’t be one that works against NCCU Law, he said, because it’s less expensive to attend than UNC and its private-university counterparts in North Carolina.
The school’s 2017 report to the ABA said its in-state tuition and fees are $18,533 annually. Elon University, a private law school with comparable admission standards and bar-exam pass rates, charges $36,667.
Doucette noted that NCCU Law will wash out first-years after their initial semester if they get less than a 1.4 GPA in it. So if “there’s no hope of you getting above 2.0, you’re out,” he said. “It’s not like running the tab for three years and then laughing to the bank as graduates flounder.”
The overall question is what state leaders “want NCCU’s mission to be,” Doucette said. “If they just want a ‘black UNC,’ so be it. But that discards the school’s history and legacy, and frankly overlooks the hundreds of students who’ve become skilled lawyers over that timespan without the traditional LSAT [test score and] GPA metrics.”