The struggling for-profit Florida Coastal School of Law disclosed Tuesday that it is seeking to become a nonprofit institution, a move that would enable it to affiliate with an existing nonprofit university for some much-needed stability.
Florida Coastal on Friday submitted an application to the American Bar Association for the major change that would mean for-profit InfiLaw Corp. would no longer own the Jacksonville school, which instead would be run by an independent board. The ABA accrediting body could spend six months to a year evaluating such an application. The school did not indicate which nonprofit university it was seeking to affiliate with.
“Moving to nonprofit is the right thing for our students, alumni, and our community,” said law dean Scott DeVito in an announcement of the move. “It will also strengthen the institution and open the door to our becoming affiliated with a non-profit university. We are extremely fortunate in having the support of all of our stakeholders as we transition to nonprofit.”
Florida Coastal has been rocked by accreditation problems and declining enrollment in recent years, and DeVito said the school is in active talks with a nonprofit university with which to affiliate. He told the Jacksonville Daily Record that the potential affiliate is not in Florida but is a university located in the Southeast. The school is already working to improve its bar pass rates, graduate employment rates, and academic credentials and affiliating with a university is the next step in that strategic plan, he added.
Florida Coastal hopes to avoid the fate of its sister schools, the Charlotte School of Law and Arizona Summit Law School, also owned by InfiLaw. Charlotte shuttered in 2017 after the U.S. Department of Education barred it from the federal loan program, while Arizona Summit is soon to close. Each saw enrollments dwindle as their bar pass rates plummeted and the ABA cracked down on their admissions practices.
With those closures, the number of ABA-accredited for-profit law schools is rapidly dwindling. Both the Thomas Jefferson School of Law and Western State University College of Law previously converted to nonprofit institutions, according to Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of Accreditation and Legal Education.
And the Charleston School of Law, which InfiLaw attempted to purchase in 2013, also plans to become a nonprofit, according to part-owner Ed Bell. But the school has yet to complete all the regulatory hurdles, Bell told the Charleston Post and Courier last month. He said the transition to a nonprofit could be completed by 2020.
Moving to a nonprofit status won’t alleviate all of Florida Coastal’s problems, however. The school remains out of compliance with the ABA’s accreditation standards pertaining to admissions practices, and has been directed to make improvements in that area or risk losing accreditation. (School leaders say they’ve already made gains in the areas flagged by the ABA, and the parties are wrangling in court over what Florida Coastal claims are vague standards that are applied unevenly across law schools.)
And enrollment remains a challenge. Florida Coastal brought in 60 first-year students this fall, down from 671 in 2011. (Worth noting are the LSAT scores of the current first-year class, which are significantly higher than for the much-larger class of 2011, which is a focal point of the school’s bid to come back into compliance with the ABA’s admissions standard.)
Bar pass rates also remain a difficulty, though the school is gaining ground there as well. Fewer than 48 percent of the school’s graduates passed the July 2017 Florida Bar. That figure jumped to more than 62 percent for July 2018 exam.
“I am impressed with how hard everyone in the organization is working to bring about this change,” DeVito said. “It shows the commitment of everyone involved to the students and the law school.”