Durham County

NCCU’s raising law-school admission standards. But how high are they going?

N.C. Central University Chancellor Johnson Akinleye says he hopes the institution has answered all the American Bar Association’s questions about admission standards to NCCU’s law school.
N.C. Central University Chancellor Johnson Akinleye says he hopes the institution has answered all the American Bar Association’s questions about admission standards to NCCU’s law school. ctoth@heraldsun.com

N.C. Central University has promised the American Bar Association that it’ll tighten admission practices at its law school by imposing a minimum LSAT score on future applicants.

Going forward, the NCCU School of Law will deny admission to anyone who scores less than a 142 on the LSAT, a standardized test that’s scored on a range going from 120 up to 180, the school said in answer to a December ABA query about its admission standards.

N.C. Central officials released a copy of their response to the trade group ahead of a meeting this week of the campus trustees. To the trustees, Chancellor Johnson Akinleye said he’s hoping the letter will become “the end of the conversation,” though he and law dean Phyliss Craig-Taylor are prepared to meet with ABA officials later this year if they have more questions.

He stressed that the law school’s “accreditation is not threatened at this point” and that the ABA hasn’t even placed it on probation.

But NCCU officials are taking the matter seriously because the law school is “very important to this institution,” Akinleye said. “It is our flagship.”

The American Bar Association’s query comes amid a nationwide crackdown by it on law schools it suspects are admitting students who aren’t “capable of satisfactorily completing [a] program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.” The Chicago-based group accredits law schools.

Central’s landed under the ABA’s microscope because its wash-out rate for first-year students hit 37.7 percent in 2016-17, even as the passing rate of recent grades on state licensure exams has dropped.

Akinleye and other officials told the law school’s alumni association on Jan. 29 that the school would reduce first-year enrollments in the course of clamping down on the admission of students who rank in the bottom quartile for both their LSAT scores and undergraduate grade-point averages.

In their Feb. 1 letter to the ABA, they pledged that there “is no set enrollment target for the incoming class of 2018,” so “the quality of the applicant pool will dictate the ultimate number enrolled.”

They also said the “primary driver” of the recent increases in the school’s wash-out rate is the academic stuggles of students in the bottom quartile of the first-year class.

Among the students who began law school last fall, most of those in the bottom quartile of LSAT scores, from 136 to 142, earned first-semester class grades ranging from about a 1.44 up to a 2.91, the Feb. 1 letter said. The school washes out first-years if they aren’t pulling down a 2.0 by the end of the spring semester. A 2.0 is a C average.

At the other end, top-quartile performers on the LSAT arrived with marks on that test ranging from 150 to 171. Most subsequently pulled down first-semester grades from 2.15 to 3.35.

A supporter of the ABA crackdown, Florida lawyer David Frakt, warned in a mid-November blog posting that NCCU was a “potential candidate for ABA concern” because most of its incoming students in 2016 had below-average LSAT scores, average generally being about 150.

In a subsequent post on Feb. 2, Frakt said he suspects the ABA now has “an unspoken policy of requiring a median LSAT of 145” at the law schools it accredits. NCCU Law’s arriving class in 2016 had a 144 median, with half the students scoring below that and half above. Its counterpart in 2017 had a 145 median.

Obviously, instituting a cutoff for applicants below a 142 should raise the median. But school officials also say they’ll have a faculty committee do a “further review” of those with LSAT scores between 142 and 145 before they make a decision on whether to admit them.

Beyond that, the school intends to hire a consultant to check the in-house “predictive index” it uses to judge applications on factors beyond grades and test scores. It hasn’t done that before, though its own data suggests that admitted students with low index numbers are indeed more likely to run into academic trouble.

Going further than the ABA has asked, NCCU is going forward with a review of the program by a trio of “external reviewers” from two out-of-state law schools and one in-state law school, Akinleye told trustees.

The reviewers are now on campus and conferred Monday with Akinleye and Interim Provost Carlton Wilson. Akinleye said they’re supposed to look at admission standards, curriculum, faculty preparedness and “various components of our organizational structure, including the school’s leadership.

The letter to the ABA included testimonials for NCCU Law from a number of alumni, jurists and lawyers, the most prominent being N.C. Supreme Court Justice Michael Morgan, former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr and N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Wanda Bryant.

Orr’s letter was perhaps the most pointed of the bunch, as he voiced the suspicion part of the motive for the ABA crackdown is a desire to “limit the number of admissions to the practice of law due to a declining job market” in the profession.

NCCU’s students, faculty and administrators are “dedicated, intelligent individuals committed to public service and the legal profession,” Orr said. “To imply the school is somehow admitting a lesser-talented group and the administration is somehow responsible defies comprehension and is insulting in so many ways.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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