An online law school owned by an Orange County trustee has continued to receive an accreditation that has been the gateway to millions of dollars in federal student aid — despite a grade-changing probe by the California State Bar and failure to meet the accreditor’s graduation standards.
In a series of emails from 2016, a State Bar official blasted Taft Law School for its policy of changing the grades of failing students, which enables them to take one of the nation’s toughest Bar exams. In one case, the revisions came five years after the courses ended.
Taft is located in Santa Ana, California, and is owned by David L. Boyd, a trustee with the Orange County Dept. of Education. He also owns an online college in Colorado.
In the past five years, only 7.5% of Taft students have continued on to a required fourth year of study, far below the 73% graduation benchmark imposed by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC). The DEAC accredits law schools that don’t meet American Bar Association standards, opening a pipeline for the schools to receive federal student aid.
The DEAC specializes in online colleges and universities and operates with the approval of the U.S. Dept. of Education. Despite missing the benchmark every year, DEAC executive director Leah Matthews defended Taft and claimed that the low graduation rate included a mix of general education students even though Taft’s website clearly states that the statistic is for a J.D. degree program. She added that the school has passed each review.
"As outlined on their website, Taft Law School provides programs both for students seeking a general legal education as well as those pursuing a degree and a legal career," Matthews said. "As such, measuring the entire student population on outcomes (graduation rates) that are not relevant for a meaningful percentage of the students would be inappropriate."
Taft has been accredited by the DEAC since 2003, the same year Boyd began his 15-year run sitting on the agency’s Standards Committee, according to public records. The DEAC was asked to comment on this, but rather defended Taft and forwarded this reporter’s emails to Boyd. Boyd would not agree to a phone interview for this article.
"To me, that raises concerns of agency capture," said attorney Kyle McEntee, founder of Law School Transparency, a non-profit dedicated to transparency and accountability in law schools. "The regulators are too in bed with the regulated. If their policy is to let the schools know that someone is inquiring about them — that is incredible. That right there bothers me more than [BOYD] serving on their board."
Non-profits like DEAC often rely on volunteers to serve on commissions, McEntee said.
"It’s something to keep an eye on and blow the whistle when it’s going too far. It seems to me that this is a case where it’s gone too far," he added.
The school’s poor performance could be the reason behind a grade-changing policy for failing students that landed Taft in trouble with the State Bar two years ago.
Taft’s Bar passage rate has been half the state average of 45 to 55%. Between 2011 and 2015, a total of 199 students took the exam and only 43 passed, according to a Taft disclosure page which has since been removed from its site. The State Bar has refused to provide a breakdown by school for the past two years.
Students with failing grades are ineligible to take the exam and also cannot receive federal aid. Since 2008, Taft students have received more than $14 million in tax-funded student loans, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
In a terse email exchange, the State Bar condemned Taft after discovering changed grades in a transcript that accompanied an unidentified exam applicant.
“A student who had their grades revised after their first year and still failed to be at good standing at the end of their second year could and should fairly be characterized as someone who is ‘demonstrated they are not qualified to continue,’” wrote the State Bar’s George Leal, citing a state code that calls for unaccredited schools to kick out students who cannot get passing grades.
Leal, who is director of Educational Studies, discovered that Taft had revised the student’s failing grades in both the first and second years, allowing him to barely squeak by with a four-year cumulative average of 2.04, emails show. He went on to say “I cannot ignore the fact that, apparently, a motivating factor in the use of these two policies is expressly tied to maintain a student’s eligibility for Title IV (federal) loans.”
Boyd responded that the grade-changing program was found to be “acceptable and in full compliance with federal law” during a 2014 DOE audit. He identified himself as the chancellor of The Taft University System and also “Trustee, Orange County Board of Education” in an automatic signature.
“I am personally concerned and alarmed at your comment regarding our student’s use of Title IV loans,” Boyd wrote. “The policy was also fully disclosed and discussed during our most recent site visit by your office.”
Boyd said he implemented the policy of revising grades 30 years ago as a reward for students who pass the state’s first-year law students exam, also known as the Baby Bar exam. Students at non-ABA accredited schools must pass this test after their first year of study in order to be eligible for the Bar exam later on.
Leal shot back that Taft’s grade revisions extended beyond the first year into the second year as well.
“Given the average number of Taft graduates who qualify to take the Bar exam, compared to the school’s average enrollment in the first and second years, I would assume that a majority of those students who benefit from having their first year grades revised do not graduate,” Leal said. “For those who do, I would also question their overall performance on passing the Bar exam.”
Taft’s dean, Robert Strouse, responded a few days later by saying, “We are also concerned about both our Baby Bar and General Bar pass rates.”
The State Bar’s guidelines for unaccredited schools require schools to “adopt written grading standards that ensure accuracy, validity, reliability” and to “as soon as possible identify and disqualify those students who have demonstrated they are not qualified to continue under these standards.”
The DOE was asked whether it was looking into Taft’s access to federal student loan funds in relation to its run-in with the State Bar over its low graduation and exam passage rates. Press Secretary Liz Hill said, “No comment.”
To be considered for federal aid, the school must obtain “institutional accreditation” and comply with all regulations, Hill said.
Hill was also asked about the credibility of the DETC and did not answer but rather said that the organization was federally recognized in 1959 and has a current recognition that expires in 2022.