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Plan to require unaccredited law schools in California to disclose dropout rates OKd

A panel of the State Bar of California approved a plan on Friday to require unaccredited law schools to disclose their dropout rates, in an effort to improve transparency for prospective students.

The unanimous decision comes about a month after a Times investigation found that about 90% of students drop out before their final year.

The move is considered to be part of a larger push to elevate the academic standards of unaccredited law schools where low tuition and few entrance requirements attract those who typically find themselves struggling with the coursework or unable to finish for other reasons.

Prospective students have the right to know dropout rates, which could help them assess their potential success before enrolling, said Karen Goodman, a member of the bar's committee that oversees unaccredited law schools.

"They can make that decision being well armed to the possibility they might not make it all the way through," she said.

But supporters of the unaccredited institutions say the requirement is a cloaked attempt to bar them from doing business.

"I don't have a problem with the transparency — I welcome it, if that's all it was. But I think it's a concerted effort to shut down all unaccredited schools," said Garo Ghazarian, dean of Peoples College of Law in Westlake.

An immigrant from Lebanon who arrived in the U.S. decades ago with little to his name, Ghazarian received his law degree from the University of La Verne. But he said he chose to volunteer at an unaccredited school to give back to people with the same meager beginnings.

"There are plenty of smart students but they're not in a position to go to an accredited school and they're not interested in working corporate — they want to go and hang their shingle and become the neighborhood lawyer," he said. "But transparency is being used as a way to detract people from even coming in through the door to see what an institution is or is not about."

Law schools can receive national or state accreditation, the former coming with more rigorous standards.

Nationally accredited law schools such as USC and UCLA are already required to publish dropout rates as well as alumni employment figures in several categories, including those working in the legal field, those who are not and those who are unemployed.

But hefty price tags — UCLA's School of Law costs more than $45,000 per year for California residents — force many to turn to the state's 22 unaccredited law schools where annual tuition can be a few thousand dollars.

That's appealing to applicants who tend to be older, work full-time, have families and lack the academic qualifications to attend a traditional law school.

Often operated by small companies or individuals, unaccredited law schools range from those that offer only online courses to classrooms located in storefronts in a strip mall.

California is one of a handful of states that allow students from unaccredited law schools to take the bar, the state's legal licensing exam. About 1 in 5 of them pass the bar, according to state records. They are also required to take an exam after their first year, which they must pass in order to proceed with classes. About 20% of them pass that test, known as the baby bar.

Committee members said they have long held concerns that unaccredited law schools were not giving students a legitimate chance at becoming lawyers. They have been considering a more extensive proposal that would require them to meet California accreditation standards within a decade, including maintaining a 40% bar passage rate over five years.

The state bar's overall passage rate hovers around 50%.

Members of the committee of bar examiners, which oversees and sets policy for the unaccredited schools, said they had not considered requiring schools to disclose attrition rates until The Times investigation.

Bar officials did discuss making alumni employment details mandatory public information as well, but felt it was not as pertinent, because many students at unaccredited schools are interested in learning about the law but not intent on becoming attorneys.

"I think it's a mistake — that's very valuable information," said state Sen. Marty Block (D-San Diego), who earlier said he would introduce legislation next year to make the schools more transparent. He has spoken in favor of disclosing attrition rates and said they should be included on each school's website.

Kyle McEntee, executive director of the nonprofit Law School Transparency, agreed.

"I don't see any evidence that a lot of people go to these law schools and don't intend to become attorneys," he said.

If the proposal is approved after a 45-day public comment period, the state's unaccredited law schools must make public their attrition rates for the previous five years.

Magda Madrigal, who attended Peoples College of Law, believes such a requirement is a ruse to publicly shame places like her alma mater.

"The accredited law schools should then be forced to post how law school graduates have to sell a part of themselves in order to pay their student loans," she said.

Now the managing attorney for Basta, a nonprofit that offers low-cost legal representation to tenants facing eviction, Madrigal said an unaccredited institution was her only shot at a law degree.

Working full-time as a secretary for the county and raising a 16-year-old son when she enrolled in night classes, she said she didn't care about her college's bar passage rate or success in obtaining employment.

"What mattered to me is: Is this place going to help me help my community?"

jason.song@latimes.com

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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