The letter reports on the school’s poor bar pass rate on the July 2016 bar (first-time pass rate of 52%). Dean DeVito candidly acknowledges that this is “unacceptable.”
In response to several straight poor results on bar examinations, which (although Dean DeVito doesn’t directly admit this) were the direct result of dropping admission standards starting in 2011, Dean DeVito announced that the school will be raising its admission standards back to 2010 levels, aiming for a median LSAT of 150 or higher, and a 25% percentile of 147. The letter indicates that Florida Coastal has already raised their incoming LSAT requirements by 5 points (for 2015, they were at 148/144/141) and states that the school plans to raise LSAT quartiles by two more points in the next admissions cycle. He suggests that this change should result in a return to bar passage rates in the mid 70s, noting that Florida Coastal’s first-time pass rate was consistently in the mid 70s prior to 2010 when their median LSAT was 150.
Dean DeVito should be heartily commended for finally putting a stop to the exploitation of hundreds of students with poor aptitude for the study of law. But it is clear that he has done so very grudgingly, and that he is not happy about it. In fact, he says he is “incredibly frustrated” at having to raise standards because the more pressing crisis, in his view, is diversity in the profession, not declining bar passage rates. He does not acknowledge in any way that Florida Coastal erred by lowering its standards in the first place, but rather bemoans the fact that raising admissions standards to the levels required to produce an acceptable bar pass rate will (in his opinion) result in decreased diversity because of an insufficient pool of minority students with LSAT scores close to the median. (Incidentally, the actual median is between 151 and 152, not 150.) While I do not doubt Dean DeVito’s sincere commitment to increasing diversity in the profession, he is not fooling anyone if he is suggesting that Florida Coastal’s decision to dramatically lower its admission standards was driven by a desire to increase diversity. Florida Coastal’s irresponsible and unethical admission policies, like those of its sister schools Charlotte and Arizona Summit, were driven by InfiLaw’s corporate policy of profit-maximization (aka greed). While these schools have touted their high rates of diversity, what they have failed to mention is that a disproportionate share of the enormous revenues they have generated in recent years came from minority students who were (quite predictably) unable to complete their degrees or pass the bar.
Much of Dean DeVito’s letter is devoted to arguing against an arbitrary 150 LSAT cutoff (what he calls the “150 Checkpoint” -- a term I have never heard anyone else use before), that no one, or at least no serious commentator on legal education that I am aware of, has ever advocated. He states “conventional wisdom tells us law school should accept only students with LSAT scores of 150 or above.” I do not know where this conventional wisdom supposedly comes from. Scores of law schools admit significant numbers of students with LSATs below 150 and many of these law schools have respectable bar passage rates. Problems with bar passage rates tend to start when half or more of the students are significantly below 150, as they have been at Florida Coastal since 2011, when their median fell to 147.
Dean DeVito also refers several times to Florida Coastal’s critics. I assume that I am one of the critics of Florida Coastal to which he is referring, and I have certainly never suggested an arbitrary 150 cutoff for admissions. In fact, just last week, I wrote on the Faculty Lounge about how a school in Florida that wanted to meet the ABA’s proposed standard of 75% within two years, should have a median of at least 149 and a 25% percentile at 147, as Nova Southeastern did in 2013, which yielded a 64% pass rate this year. It seems that Florida Coastal, which has data on thousands of its own law graduates who have taken the Florida bar, has reached a similar conclusion.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that students with very low LSAT scores struggle to pass the bar, Dean DeVito includes in his letter a very confusing and misleading table which suggests otherwise. Table 2 of his letter appears to show that Coastal students with an LSAT below 140 have a par pass rate of 87%, students between 140-144 have an 83% bar pass rate, and those in the 145-149 range have an 86% par pass rate. The Table doesn’t indicate what period it covers or whether this is a first-time pass rate or ultimate pass rate, but it does indicate that the numbers are based on 15 students in the below 140 cohort, 186 in the 140-144 cohort and 636 in the 145-149 cohort. Without more information, the chart is essentially meaningless. The most likely explanation for this chart, assuming it is accurate, is that at some time in the past, likely 2010 or earlier, Florida Coastal admitted only a very small handful of students below 140, for example only those with very high grades, or only those who passed a rigorous admission by performance program. Fifteen of this group of students of unknown size earned a J.D. and took at least one bar exam, and 13 of these 15 eventually passed the bar. Whatever this chart is supposed to represent, it is completely unrelated to what Florida Coastal has been doing for the past few years. For example, in 2013, Florida Coastal matriculated at least 110 students at 141 or below (141 was the 25th percentile in a class of 441), and their GPA standards also fell across the board. If Dean DeVito was interested in providing some meaningful information, he would tell us how many of these students completed their J.D. (or transferred to a higher-ranked school) and what their bar pass rate was. Given that the school’s first-time pass rate has dropped below 50% for calendar year 2016, I am quite confident that those with sub-140 LSATs were nowhere close to 86%. The decision to dramatically raise LSAT standards after multiple poor bar results suggests that Florida Coastal has clear evidence that confirms the correlation between LSAT scores and bar passage. If Florida Coastal could have come up with any way to keep admitting droves of students with extremely low LSAT scores students without fear of losing their accreditation, there is no doubt they would have done so.
Despite Florida Coastal’s announced plan to turn things around, and Dean DeVito’s promise that bar pass rates will soon start to improve, it is likely that the bar pass rate will get worse before it gets better. In 2014, (the year I was thrown out of my Dean interview for suggesting Florida Coastal was admitting too many weak students) Florida Coastal enrolled 106 students at 140 or lower (140 was the 25% percentile in an entering class of 424). The 2015 entering class of 320 was similarly weak, with half or more entering students with LSATs at 144 and below. As these students graduate and take the bar in 2017, 2018 and 2019 (for the part-time students), their bar results will likely remain very low, considerably below even the minimum rate required to stay in compliance with the ABA’s current weak and loophole-ridden bar passage standard. The move to raise admission standards now can be seen as a preemptive effort to stave off the ABA sanctions that should be imposed as a result, which could be a potential fatal blow to the school.
Although Dean DeVito has essentially responded to his critics (like me) by doing exactly what critics (like me) recommended, he can’t help but disparage those of us who gave the school such sound advice. He makes one particularly outrageous and completely unfounded swipe at Florida Coastal’s critics that must not go unchallenged: “if you ask the majority of our critics which is more important, first-time bar passage rates or a culturally diverse student body, I feel comfortable wagering the former would be considered more important.” As one of the school’s most prominent critics and a friend of several others, I would happily accept this wager. The problem with this statement, aside from the fact that it unfairly casts those who believe that a substantial majority of those who graduate from law school should be able to pass the bar on their first try (something that should be an entirely uncontroversial proposition) as anti-diversity (i.e. racist), is that it suggests that the two goals are mutually exclusive, when they clearly are not. There are many culturally diverse law schools in this country that have high first-time bar passage rates, including for their minority students. Contrary to Dean DeVito’s apparent belief, it is quite possible to support meaningful standards and support a highly diverse student body, although it may be difficult to attain both these goals at Florida Coastal in the short term. For the foreseeable future, it will be difficult for Florida Coastal to attract highly qualified minority students – those who are likely to pass the bar on their first attempt -- because the school is perceived as a law school of last resort. This perception is based on the extremely poor job placement outcomes, low starting salaries, and poor bar passage statistics the school has produced in recent years. That is why my prescription for the school’s long-term success back in 2014 was to try to enhance the reputation of the school by getting smaller and focusing on quality, not quantity. It seems that the school has belatedly gotten the message. Unfortunately, it had to ruin the lives of hundreds of students and completely destroy its reputation before coming to this realization. Although it will undoubtedly be an uphill battle to restore the school’s bar pass rates to their former levels, and an even more difficult challenge to restore the school’s reputation, I wish Dean DeVito well.