The heat’s on NCCU about its law school admission standards

“We are committed to doing everything that is required to achieve student success,” says NCCU law school dean Phyliss Craig-Taylor.
“We are committed to doing everything that is required to achieve student success,” says NCCU law school dean Phyliss Craig-Taylor. News and Observer file photo

N.C. Central University’s law school is “significantly out of compliance” with the American Bar Association’s accreditation standards, apparently because its admission standards aren’t tough enough.

The ABA’s accreditation manager, Barry Currier, wrote NCCU Chancellor Johnson Akinleye and law school dean Phyliss Craig-Taylor this month to ask for a written report on what the school plans to do about the matter.

That report is due Feb. 1 and, depending on what it says, could trigger or head off a hearing by the ABA’s accreditation committee in the summer, Currier wrote.

Craig-Taylor said her school intends to make changes.

“In light of the communication from the ABA, we are implementing more data analytics and examining our admissions process,” she said. “With new standards and new interpretations, new strategies and approaches are necessary. We are committed to doing everything that is required to achieve student success.”

Currier’s letter reported the results of a December accreditation committee review and cited an ABA standard that says a law school must “only admit applicants who appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.”

A related provision says the group will judge compliance by looking the “academic and admission-test credentials of” a school’s incoming students, the rate at which they fail or drop out, their bar-exam passing rates and “the effectiveness of the law school’s academic support program.”

The ABA asks law schools to shoot for having 75 percent of their graduates pass the bar exam in any given five years. But the group cautions that passing rate is “not alone sufficient to comply with” its rule on admissions.

But NCCU’s law school has in fact had a problem with bar-exam passing rates of late.

Reports from legal-industry trade publications indicate that its graduates passed at rates lower than all but two of North Carolina’s seven public and private law schools in the winter and summer of 2017.

In a February sitting for the exam, 74 NCCU law grads who were either taking the test for the first time or repeating it after a prior failure managed but a 27 percent passing rate.

That bettered only Elon University’s 26.3 percent rate and the Charlotte School of Law’s 21.1 percent. Elon’s law school is still essentially a start-up, having opened its doors in 2006, and the Charlotte School of Law’s many problems forced its closure last summer.

In February 2017, only 27 percent of 74 NCCU law grads who were either taking the test for the first time or repeating it after a prior failure passed.

A July exam sitting went better for all three schools, with NCCU law grads managing a 53.7 percent passing rate. Elon again trailed with a 53.5 percent passing rate and the Charlotte School brought up the rear at 34.1 percent.

The state’s four other law schools – at Duke University, Wake Forest University, UNC-Chapel Hill and Campbell University – managed an 80.6 percent passing rate or better in the July sitting. Their February percentages were considerably worse, topped that month by UNC’s 65 percent.

The ABA is pushing at least some of the law schools it accredits to raise admission standards. Partly that’s a response to the private, for-profit Charlotte School’s well-documented troubles, but it also comes amid a glut of new lawyers.

And NCCU’s law school has been on the radar for observers of both the industry and the ABA campaign.

An Orlando lawyer who blogs about the profession for a site called, David Frakt, wrote in mid-December that with the Charlotte School’s demise the NCCU School of Law “takes over the mantle of least selective law school in North Carolina.”

Given incoming students’ undergraduate grades and their attrition rate after the first year of law school, “the ABA needs to take a hard look at N.C. Central,” Frakt said.

According to reports NCCU Law filed with the ABA its fall 2017 incoming class had a median undergraduate grade-point average of 3.22. That was lower than the 3.31 median for the group of 183 first-years that entered in the fall of 2016.

The school reported to the ABA that 69 of the 2016 first-years left school for reasons other than a transfer, a 37.7 percent attrition rate.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Law, by contrast, reported a 3.56 median undergraduate grade-point average for its fall 2017 incoming class and a 0.0 percent attrition rate for its fall 2016 arrivals, although seven of the 2016 first-years transferred.

The Chapel Hill school took in 209 new students in 2017.

Craig-Taylor said NCCU has “always utilized a holistic approach to admissions and closely review[s] each applicant’s full application package in weighing our admissions decision.”

In admissions-speak, “holistic” means a school looks at more than an applicant’s test scores and past grades.

Most admission reviews in fact consider more than those two things, because at least in undergraduate admissions test scores and prior grades predict only part of student performance in college.

NCCU Law has long had a “safety school” reputation among would-be lawyers in North Carolina, supplying applicants a place to go if they can’t get into UNC-CH’s law school and need to attend an in-state public university program.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg