Future Of The J.D.: More Online?

The accrediting arm of the American Bar Association has proposed a new rule that would almost double the number of distance learning credits students are eligible to take before graduation. In a memo published late last month by the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which accredits schools for the ABA, the council recommends upping the current number of 15 credit hours earned as “distance education” to one-third of the credits needed for a J.D.
“Under this revision, law schools would be permitted to grant 10 of those distance education credit hours in the first year,” the memo, proposed under Standard 306, says. Members of the council approved the plan last week at their meeting in San Antonio, Texas and published the Standard for “notice and comment,” according to an announcement from the ABA.
According to ABA standards, accredited law schools must require at least 83 credit hours before graduation; many require 86 to 90. For schools requiring 90 credit hours, up to 30 could technically be taken online, if the proposed change is enacted.
Perhaps even more of a game-changer, though, would be allowing students to take up to 10 hours during their first year at distance. The original Standard 306, which was first approved and published last November, stated that, “A law school shall not enroll a student in courses qualifying for credit under this Standard until that student has completed instruction equivalent to 28 credit hours toward the J.D. degree.” But that line has since been scratched and replaced with: “A law school may grant up to 10 of those credits during the first one-third of a student’s program of legal education.”
The proposal then elaborates on the logistics of such change: “A law school shall establish an effective process for verifying the identity of students taking distance education courses and that also protects student privacy. If any additional student charges are associated with verification of student identity, students must be notified at the time of registration or enrollment.”
The proposed revisions are intended to “provide law schools with greater flexibility,” says Pamela Lysaght, chair of the Standards Review Committee and a former faculty member at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
According to the proposal, for courses to qualify, at least one-third of the course must isolate students from the instructor, other classmates, or both. Also, the memo states, the course must include “use of technology to support regular and substantive interaction among students and between the students and the faculty member, either synchronously or asynchronously.” Plus, the distance course must include content, delivery approach, and methods of evaluating student performance all in accordance with each school’s “regular curriculum approval process,” the Standard reads.
Still, according to the ABA, schools may be granted extended “variances” on a case-by-case basis. So far, three schools have requested and been approved for even more increased distance learning: Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Southwestern Law School, and, most recently, “during the closed session of this council meeting, Syracuse University College of Law,” says the ABA announcement. Only Mitchell Hamline has officially enrolled students in an extended online program.
The change to distance learning rules as well as a few other changes will be the focal point of a public council meeting held in Washington, D.C. on April 12. Changes could be finalized when the council meets again in Washington in May. If approved, the finalized proposal goes to the ABA House of Delegates in August for concurrence.
The other significant measure being considered for approval has to do with how law schools report employment percentages for their most recently graduated classes. For the 204 ABA-accredited schools, employment numbers are reported at 10 months after graduation and may include law school-funded jobs, though those must be reported separately.
The changes come at a time when law school debt continues to soar. According to U.S. News & World Report data, graduates of law schools at New York University, Georgetown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Virginia, Northwestern University, and Harvard University now graduate with average debt of more than $150,000. Graduates of those schools and 15 others have between $150,000 and $182,000 of debt at time of graduation.
The changes also come as a response to an audit conducted by the ABA of 10 random schools in 2016. Among other revelations, the audit found that half of the 10 schools had missed a compliance benchmark for documentation required for reporting important data points, such as how many graduates are employed within 10 months of graduation and how many are in full-time positions that required bar passage.

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