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The American Bar Association has responded to a July 11 letter from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, expressing concern over the debt and job prospects of law graduates and requesting detailed information about student scholarships and accreditation. The organization’s response, however, likely won’t satisfy ABA critics looking for a mea culpa or an outline for major changes in its approach to accrediting law schools. ABA President Stephen Zack wrote to Grassley that the group shares his concerns. “No one could be more focused on the future of our next generation of lawyers than the ABA and the legal profession we serve,” he wrote. In a 67-page memo responding to 31 questions posed by Grassley, the ABA wrote that its role is to ensure that accredited law schools produce graduates who can be lawyers, not to regulate the number of new lawyers based on economic conditions. Denying accreditation to schools that meet its standards would violate Department of Education regulations, the association wrote. “Regardless of what some may see as the desirability of denying access to the legal profession on the basis of even medium-term employment opportunities, the accrediting agency simply cannot lawfully do so,” it wrote. Regarding merit scholarship retention, about which Grassley expressed concern, the ABA responded that the problem is one of law students not fully understanding the scholarship terms. A recent article in The New York Times accused law schools of pulling a bait-and-switch on law students by not disclosing the percentage of recipients who lose merit scholarships after their first year because they don’t meet the required minimum grade-point average. The ABA does not require disclosure of non-renewal rates, although several committees are exploring the possibility of requiring schools to report that figure annually, the memo said. It noted that the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has received no complaints that law schools had failed to notify scholarship recipients about the terms. According to the memo, the number of students receiving need-based scholarships has decreased during the past five years, while the number of students receiving merit scholarships has increased. The number of students with need-based scholarships dropped by 3,171 during that period, while the number of students on merit scholarships grew by 8,580. A number of academic papers have argued that law schools are using merit scholarships to lure students with high LSAT scores and GPAs in order to bolster U.S. News & World Report rankings at the expense of lower-income students. Altogether, the amount of scholarship, grant and fellowship money offered by law schools increased by $360 million during those five years, the ABA reported. Grassley posed several questions about the rate of loan defaults by law school graduates. In its memo, the ABA listed federal loan default rates for 19 independent law schools that are not connected to a larger university system, since it cannot break out default rates specifically for graduates at university-based law schools. None of the rates listed for 2008 — the most recent available — were higher than 2.2 percent, with the exception of the Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School. It reported a 7.1 percent default rate, but the ABA said that figure was based on a very small cohort of students. The ABA-provided statistics did not include the default rates for private student loans.

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