It seems the beleaguered Western State College of Law won’t become the first American Bar Accredited-law school to shut down midsemester after all.
A federal judge in Ohio on Tuesday ordered the receiver tasked with winding down the Orange County, California, school to extend enough funding to allow it to remain open until May 29—giving the 77 students in their final semester the ability to complete their legal studies and graduate. The judge also extended the time period for the law school to secure a new owner by a month, until April 26.
It was a much-needed bit of good news for the law school, which was thrown into chaos in January when its owners—facing massive financial losses and litigation—entered into a court-appointed receivership. The situation worsened in late February when the U.S. Department of Education cut off federal student loan eligibility in response to reports that the law school’s parent entity, Argosy University, was withholding federal loan disbursements from students. Western State students have been in limbo as law school administrators scramble to salvage the remainder of the semester and, hopefully, the school’s long-term viability.
“It has been tough,” said Marina Awed, a third-year law student who has intervened in the court case in order to advocate for the interest of herself and fellow classmates. “It just seems really unfair for our law school to have to close because of what happened. It was the parent company that did all these things and we shouldn’t have to suffer for it.”
But Awed said that Tuesday’s order was a best-case scenario for the law school in that it ensures the ability of herself and some fellow 3Ls to graduate while also giving the school more time to secure a buyer.
Western State is the oldest law school in Orange County—it was founded in 1966 and has transferred ownership three times over the past two decades. Should Western State close after the spring semester, it would become the sixth ABA-accredited law school to shutter or announced plans to close since 2016.
Western State Law Dean Allen Easley on Wednesday referred questions about the school’s status to a spokeswoman for Dream Center Education Holdings—the Los Angeles-based religious nonprofit that purchased the law school, Argosy and a series of other higher education institutions from the Education Management Corp. in 2017. She did not respond to requests for comment.
Antoinette Flores, associate director for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, a think tank, said Western State’s future looks shaky despite Tuesday’s favorable order from U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster of the Northern District of Ohio.
“I just worry, ‘Is this institution stable enough?’” she said. “Are they just prolonging the pain in trying to prevent the inevitable? Does the law school really have the resources to serve students well at this point?”
While Polster’s order this week was good news for Western State’s immediate future, court papers indicate that the law school has a challenging road ahead as it seeks to find a buyer and remain in business. An educational services company that acquired a number of Dream Center’s education holdings and expressed an interest in buying the law school—Studio Enterprise Manager—informed the court March 15 that it was no longer pursuing a purchase. The U.S. Department of Education informed the company that the law school’s federal loan eligibility is directly tied to Argosy University.
“As a result, the Department of Education will not approve a sale of the law school as a freestanding institution with its own [federal loan] eligibility,” Studio Enterprise Manager wrote in a letter to the court.
That means that any purchaser of Western State would have to be an institution that already has access to federal student loans. Two Western State alumni have also stepped forward as potential buyers of the law school. Newport Beach-based plaintiff attorney Gregory Bentley and San Bernardino-based personal injury attorney William Shapiro wrote to the court March 18 to express an interest in acquiring the school or working to find a buyer. The pair also offered to help raise funds to keep the school in operation through the remainder of the spring semester. Neither Bentley nor Shapiro responded to requests for comment Wednesday.
But Flores and Awed conceded that finding a buyer for the law school will be more difficult because those entities must already have federal loan eligibility—something a deep-pocketed alumni lacks. Polster, in his order, encouraged the Education Department to work with potential buyers of the law school, and for the receiver to also help pursue a sale.
“The judge seems like he’s advocating for the school to survive,” said Awed, who attended an earlier hearing in Polster’s courtroom.
Easley has also been pushing the court to help law students, urging it to maintain funding through the remainder of the semester in a March 14 letter to Polster. “The past seven weeks during the tenure of the receivership has been extremely difficult and stressful for the staff of the law school, and more so for the students, who, through no fault of their own, find their legal educations in jeopardy,” Easley wrote.
But the situation remains uncertain for many of Western State’s 300 or so students who aren’t on track to graduate in May. Associate dean for academic affairs Susan Keller sent an email to students Wednesday outlining some transfer options. Students may formally transfer to other law schools or they might finish out their Western State law degrees as visiting students on other campuses. That second option, in which they would receive their J.D.s from Western State, would require the school to maintain its ABA accreditation until the remaining students graduate—an arrangement that hasn’t yet been secured, Keller noted.
“I know that uncertainties remain and I wish it were in my power to remove those in order to limit your stress,” Keller wrote. “I know how difficult this situation has been for every one of you.”
Among the ABA-accredited law schools that have indicated a willingness to accept Western State transfer students are Southwestern Law School; Thomas Jefferson School of Law; Chapman University Dale E. Fowler School of Law; the University of La Verne College of Law; and Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, according to Keller’s email to students. Several California-accredited law schools, as well as the online Concord Law School, have also said Western State students may apply to transfer.
Western State at one point had campuses in San Diego, Fullerton and Irvine and was the largest law school in California. (The San Diego campus spun off to become the independent Thomas Jefferson School of Law.) The school was sold to the for-profit Argosy Education Group in 2000, which was subsequently bought by the Education Management Corp. That company sold its higher education holdings to the Dream Center Foundation in 2017—which is a subsidiary of the Dream Center megachurch.
According to Flores, the Dream Center had no experience in education and lacked the resources to keep the schools afloat, landing the programs in a federal receivership. Many of Dream Center’s educational holdings have found buyers, though Argosy University—and the affiliated Western State College of Law—have not.
Awed said the atmosphere around the law campus is grim, with many students struggling to pay rent and buy food without receiving their federal loan disbursements.
“A lot of people avoid being on campus altogether,” she said. “There is a lot of, ‘I’m just going to drop out. I don’t want to be here.’ People are crying all the time.”