Higher Education:

Issues Related to Law School Accreditation

GAO-07-314: Published: Mar 8, 2007. Publicly Released: Mar 8, 2007.

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In order to participate in certain federal programs, such as federal student financial aid, postsecondary institutions must be accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the Department of Education (Education). Accreditation ensures that schools provide basic levels of quality in their educational programs, and Education recognizes those agencies it concludes can reliably determine the quality of education provided by the schools and programs they accredit. Since 1952, Education has recognized the American Bar Association (ABA) as an accrediting agency for law schools. ABA accreditation is important to the 195 law schools it accredits because it allows their graduates the flexibility to take the Bar exam in any jurisdiction in the United States. The Department of Education requires that all recognized accrediting agencies periodically reapply for continued recognition. The Secretary of Education's accreditation advisory group, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), considered the ABA's most recent application for continued recognition in December 2006. The ABA was originally scheduled for review in December 2005, but Education postponed it twice based on the large volume of public comments that had to be reviewed, as well as concerns about the ABA's diversity standard. To address Congressional interest in these issues, we answered the following questions: (1) What is Education's process for recognizing accrediting agencies? (2) What is ABA's process for accrediting law schools? (3) What concerns have been raised about the ABA's accreditation process?

In summary, Education has established criteria for recognizing an accrediting agency and has mechanisms in place to assess compliance with the criteria. Agencies found to be in compliance with Education's criteria can be approved for up to 5 years. There are also mechanisms in place to defer or deny an agency's recognition. ABA has established standards for approval of law schools and has mechanisms in place to assess compliance with the criteria. Law schools are eligible for provisional approval when they demonstrate that they are in substantial compliance with each of the standards, and must demonstrate they are in full compliance to be fully approved. Some Education staff, law school administrators, and other third-parties have raised concerns about ABA's accreditation process, particularly with respect to the transparency and consistency of the process, as well as the legality of its diversity standard, which requires schools to demonstrate they are reaching out to underrepresented groups. Based on concerns that ABA is not fully in compliance with regulatory provisions that govern accreditation, Education and NACIQI have recommended that the Secretary of Education renew ABA's recognition for a period of 18 months, rather than the maximum period of 5 years.

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