State Bar Investigated Grade-Changing At Online Law School Tied To County Schools Official

A State Bar investigator said an Orange County online law school appeared to promote failing students, allowing those students to qualify for lucrative federal student loans.

In a series of 2016 emails, State Bar director of education standards George Leal pressed Santa Ana-based Taft Law School administrators to explain the school’s practice of retroactively raising grades of students. Leal identified cases in which Taft raised the grades of students who failed to earn at least a 2.0 grade-point average during their first two years, but had their grades raised later.

In a January 14, 2016, email to Taft officials, Leal questioned the school’s motives in adopting the policy. “Finally and very candidly,” Leal wrote, “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 federal student loans.

The email exchange was made public in response to a California Public Records Act request.

In addition to raising questions about the school’s practices, the exchange reveals that Taft founder David L. Boyd blurred the lines between his business at Taft and his political position on the board that oversees Orange County public schools. As the email exchange between Leal and Robert Strouse, Taft’s dean, continued throughout January, Boyd stepped in, pushing back on Leal’s findings and signing off as the chancellor of The Taft University System and also “Trustee, Orange County Board of Education.”

Taft has earned some $15 million in federal student loan income. In his letter, Boyd defended Taft’s grade-changing and students’ eligibility of government aid programs, called Title IV.

OC Board of Education Trustee David Boyd

“I am personally concerned and alarmed at your comment on regarding our students’ use of Title IV loans,” Boyd wrote. He said Taft had been retroactively changing grades for 30 years for students who earned subpar grades but who passed the state’s critical First-Year Law Students’ Examination (FYSLX), commonly known as the Baby Bar. The school’s purpose in changing grades was simply to give failing first-year students a “fresh start,” and he contended it complied with applicable state and federal rules.

Boyd never acknowledged our multiple requests for comment. The school’s dean, Robert Strouse, said he could not respond to questions for at least a week. Leal forwarded questions to the State Bar public information office. That office did not provide promised responses to requests for comment.

Boyd blamed federal regulations for putting Taft “in a position that we are required to sometimes continue a student beyond what we may have done prior to Title IV,” the law that governs federal loan programs.

Boyd said he actually opposes federal loans for students at distance-learning schools like Taft. But when his competitors in the online law-school market began offering federal student loan assistance, Boyd said, he was forced to follow the practice. Yes, he admitted, federal student loans had ultimately boosted the school’s enrollment, but that came with additional expense and “administrative headaches.”

“Quite frankly,” Boyd told Leal, “if our goal was to maintain a student’s eligibility for Title IV loans, we could have done so by simply not placing the student on Academic Probation in the first place.”

Leal pushed back. Putting students into performance-improvement programs so long as they pass the Baby Bar allowed several students to stay in law school – and qualify for federal loans – longer than they should.

“A student may spend three full years, possibly four at Taft earning grades below good standing (with the possibility that their grades were far below good standing during their first year),” he said. “It is this outcome that raises an issue of whether the combination of the two policies is compliant” with state rules that schools like Taft “must as soon as possible identify and disqualify those students who have demonstrated they are not qualified to continue under these standards.”

Taft Law School is an unaccredited correspondence law school, but is subject to state and federal regulation. Students at such distance-learning schools must satisfactorily complete a minimum of 864 hours of study per year for four years, and each year of study must be at least 48 and not more than 52 consecutive weeks. The cost is a relative bargain: $35,040 over four years. That’s about $10,000 less than the cost of just one year at Chapman University or UC Irvine’s schools of law.

Leal’s investigation was triggered when State Bar staff flagged a Taft graduate’s application to take the bar exam in 2015. That student had failed first-year courses at Taft but passed the Baby Bar in 2007.

Leal observed that Taft retroactively raised the student’s grades in three first-year courses so that his GPA was a passing 2.0. But the grade change occurred in 2012 – five years after the student took the Baby Bar.

And there was another red flag: in an e-mail to Taft Law School Dean Robert Strouse, Leal pointed out that the student needed to repeat his second year “due to several failing grades, including a zero in Property [Law], a class it appears he never took again or ever received credit for.

“It is also difficult to see how he completed four full years of study given his apparent repeat of his second year,” Leal wrote.

Leal pointed out the school’s practices permit a “not inconsequential number of Taft students” to have their first-year grades retroactively boosted “and yet appear incapable of maintaining good standing from their second year on.”

“I also think that if 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 has ‘demonstrated they are not qualified to continue’ under the academic standards set by Taft,” stated Leal.

In a January 8 e-mail, Strouse said he “believed” Taft had a process in place “to prevent this from happening again.” He was referring to a Taft program to place failing students in a Student Academic Improvement Plan. Strouse noted that students who failed to maintain a 2.0 could lose their federal student financial aid.

Leal remained unsatisfied, saying he “still [had] an issue” with how these “Student Academic Improvement Programs” square with “Taft’s policy of revising first-year grades to a 2.0 when a student passes” the Baby Bar.

“[A]s with [name redacted], a student may spend three full years, possibly four at Taft earning grades below good standing, with the possibility their grades were far below good standing their first year,” wrote Leal.

The State Bar’s prodding apparently had some effect. In February 2016, Strouse emailed Leal to inform him that “after a series of meetings and extensive review of the policies,” Taft would make two key changes. Leal seemed satisfied with the response, and wished the school “continued success.”

But the policy changes in Taft’s policies that Leal approved might leave a neutral observer wondering about the effectiveness of State Bar regulators.

Strouse said Taft officials shared the State Bar’s concerns about “about both our Baby Bar and General Bar pass rates. We are implementing some review programs to try to assist our students with their preparation for these exams.”

On the practice of changing grades, Strouse said in the future any Taft student who “fails a course in year two, regardless of cumulative GPA . . . will not advance.” He or she would be placed on a student improvement plan. And students who don’t “do well in year three”? They would be “subject to dismissal” – but only “at the discretion of the [Taft] Administration.”

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