Stolen shamelessly from the Wall Street Journal:

 

The Rise and Fall of a Law-School Empire Fueled by Federal Loans

Don Lively’s mission to offer legal education to students rejected elsewhere is coming unraveled

Josh Mitchell

Nov. 24, 2017 12:28 p.m. ET

Don Lively had a plan to bring more blacks and Hispanics into the practice of law.

Mr. Lively, a professor who is white, set out to open a law school that would take minority students even if they had low test scores or did poorly in college. Using retirement savings, a loan from his father and a check from a retired couple who read about him in a local newspaper, he opened Florida Coastal School of Law in 1996 in Jacksonville.

That school and two others he later helped run—Arizona Summit in Phoenix and Charlotte School of Law in North Carolina—became among the fastest-growing law schools in the country. Half of their students were from minority groups. The for-profit schools became part of a business network called the InfiLaw System, backed by Chicago private-equity investors. Enrollment soared from several dozen at Florida Coastal in 1996 to roughly 4,000 at the three schools combined in 2012.

Now, two decades after it all started, Mr. Lively’s mission is in tatters. The Charlotte school closed in August after North Carolina revoked its license. Enrollment in Arizona and Florida is down sharply, and InfiLaw is looking for buyers for both schools. Thousands of InfiLaw students have dropped out, transferred or failed state bar exams and are struggling to pay down a total of more than $1 billion in federal student loans, Education Department and American Bar Association data indicate. Many owe more than $100,000.

“The whole system broke down,” says Mr. Lively, 69 years old, who serves as Arizona Summit’s president and owns less than 1% of InfiLaw. “We weren’t ready to deliver on a scaled basis. We haven’t built up our academic support program to a level that would enable us to deliver those things that we were convinced that we could deliver.”

Federal student loans were central to the venture’s wild growth. Taxpayers could wind up on the hook for large chunks of InfiLaw student debt that never gets paid back, and the student borrowers face years of damaged credit.

Heavy borrowing by students at for-profit schools such as InfiLaw has contributed to a rapid expansion in student debt held by blacks. In the 1990s, black and white students, on average, owed roughly the same shortly after graduation. As of 2012, blacks owed nearly twice as much as whites, on average, four years after graduating from college, according to research by Columbia University economist Judith Scott-Clayton. She attributes the change partly to increasing black enrollment in for-profit graduate schools.

Mr. Lively, a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, was teaching law at a public university in the early 1990s and had become frustrated, he says, with faculty egos and a lack of innovation at traditional law schools. He believed admissions practices hurt blacks and Hispanics.

Law schools rejected tens of thousands of applicants annually based largely on Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, scores. Selectivity helped schools achieve higher rankings but limited opportunities for minorities, who tended to score worse on tests than whites for a range of reasons still hotly debated by academics. Mr. Lively believed those students could succeed if given extra time and resources.

Around the time his plans to start a law school began taking shape, the Justice Department under President Bill Clinton ordered the American Bar Association to stop barring for-profit law schools from receiving accreditation. The bar association also made other changes designed to address what the Justice Department deemed cartellike behavior in higher education. U.S. officials believed competition from private-sector schools could help drive down prices, says James Tierney, a former Justice Department lawyer who helped draft the order.

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Lively met Bernie and Rita Turner, a retired couple in their 70s who had started Walden University, now owned by for-profit Laureate Education Inc. The couple liked his social mission. “What do you do with this mass of people that don’t have the breaks that the more affluent have?” asks Mr. Turner. He and his wife invested 40% of the roughly $1.4 million Mr. Lively used to start Florida Coastal.

Florida Coastal had mixed results at first but eventually put up impressive numbers. In July 2009, 83% of its first-time test takers passed the Florida state bar exam, which had an overall pass rate of 80%. Mr. Lively attributed the success to small class sizes and an academic support team that helped students individually.

By the early 2000s, however, his school needed money for capital improvements, Mr. Lively says. Its building was in disrepair, the parking lot frequently flooded and he needed to pay professors more to retain them.

Mr. Lively turned to Wall Street. He was impressed, he says, with the social mission of Chicago private-equity firm Sterling Partners and its experience in other education ventures, including Sylvan Learning Systems, a tutoring and test-preparation service.

Sterling, which today has about $4 billion in assets under management, saw a business opportunity, says one former investor of InfiLaw. There was “surplus demand” for legal education, he says. About 100,000 people were applying to law schools every year, but only about half were accepted, American Bar Association data show.

Florida Coastal law school was sold to Sterling in 2004. A news report at the time said the price was $15 million. Mr. Lively says he received about $1.2 million and the rest went to the Turners, several other investors and key employees.

Mr. Lively had wanted to expand Florida Coastal, but Sterling was thinking bigger, he says. It wanted to open law schools in other markets. If the business model worked in Jacksonville, why not replicate it nationally? Sterling identified markets without enough law schools, including Phoenix and Charlotte, Mr. Lively says.

InfiLaw was created as a holding company to own the schools. The new company lined up more investors, including Harvard University’s endowment fund, according to a former owner of Charleston School of Law in South Carolina who later participated in buyout negotiations with InfiLaw. A spokesman for Harvard Management Co. said it doesn’t comment on its investments.

In 2006, the year Charlotte opened, Congress approved a loan program known as Grad Plus. It allowed graduate students to borrow unlimited sums to cover tuition and living costs. Previously they were limited to $18,500 a year.

No higher-education sector used Grad Plus as much as law, Education Department data show. InfiLaw students eventually piled up more than $700 million in Grad Plus debt, and another $300 million from older loan programs, Education Department data show. InfiLaw says tuition represents about two-thirds of the annual cost of attending its schools full time, and living expenses are a third. Annual tuition is about $45,400 at Arizona Summit and $46,000 at Florida Coastal, roughly in line with the national average for private law schools.

 

By 2010, with the U.S. labor market strengthening, the number of Americans seeking higher education began falling sharply, and news reports began appearing about a shortage of high-paying jobs in law. Law-school enrollment, after peaking in 2010, fell about 30% through 2015 to the lowest level since the 1970s, according to the website Law School Transparency.

Law schools, competing for fewer applicants, lowered admissions standards to fill their classes, according to research by Aaron Taylor, head of the AccessLex Center for Legal Education, a nonprofit research group. Admission rates across all law schools rose to a collective 51% in 2013, from 36% in 2010.

InfiLaw schools also lowered admissions standards, and they grew rapidly. Some classes roughly doubled in size, former professors say. Administrators believed they were having success with students with below-average standardized-test scores and could work with students even further below the average.

“If your bar-pass is solid, which it was, why not grow?” says Susan Daicoff, an Arizona Summit professor who previously worked at Florida Coastal.

David Frakt, who interviewed to be dean of Florida Coastal in 2014, says he was shocked when school officials showed him the incoming class’s academic credentials. Over half the students were what he called “extremely high risk,” having ranked in the bottom quarter of LSAT takers and, in many cases, having low grades in college.

Other law schools typically admitted few such students. InfiLaw schools were marketing to them and admitting them by the hundreds each year, Mr. Frakt says.

Mr. Frakt says he warned the school’s president, Dennis Stone, that most of those new students would fail the bar and default on loans. He says Mr. Stone dismissed those concerns. The school didn’t offer him the job.

Mr. Stone didn’t respond to requests for comment. Rick Inatome, Infilaw’s chief executive and a Sterling partner, declined to comment, citing current negotiations about the future of Infilaw’s two remaining schools.

Bryan Forbes, 32, says he was turned down by several law schools for having a below-average LSAT score and undergraduate grade-point average. Charlotte School of Law accepted him. He began in 2014. A year later he was “academically dismissed,” he says. “I was kind of unprepared on my side.”

He had borrowed about $36,000 from the government for his one semester, a balance that has grown, he says, because he hasn’t made a payment. He now works as a customer-service agent at a bank.

InfiLaw allowed applicants to take a boot-camp-style course and then an exam to win admission even if they had very low LSAT scores. Andrew McAdams, who taught at the Charlotte school from 2014 to 2015, recalls grading exams for one such class of about 25 potential applicants. Every student scored extremely poorly and was “grossly unprepared” for law school, he says. “I just can’t in good faith see any of these students getting in,” he recalled thinking. The school admitted roughly five or six of them, he says.

InfiLaw and Charlotte School of Law, in a statement released by Mr. Lively, said Mr. McAdams’s story “does not seem credible.” Mr. McAdams says the school bought out his contract after he told them he intended to leave. The school says it chose not to renew his contract.

Many students dropped out. Others graduated but failed the state bar exams they need to pass to practice law. At Arizona Summit, 26% of first-time takers of the Arizona exam passed in July of this year, compared with a state average of 69%, state supreme court records show.

Mr. Lively acknowledges a big mistake. To lure prospective students, Arizona Summit made certain bar-preparation courses optional, allowing students to take courses catering to their interests. Many opted out of the bar-prep courses and were unprepared at test time.

Once troubling trends emerged, Mr. Lively says, InfiLaw schools raised admissions standards and reduced enrollment. Arizona Summit recently began requiring the bar-prep courses again, he says.

“I don’t have any quibble with anyone who would criticize us for our outcomes,” says Mr. Lively. “I do have problems with people who attack us on the basis of motive.”

Former Charlotte professor Barbara Bernier filed a federal whistleblower civil lawsuit alleging the Charlotte school defrauded the government by admitting “academically unqualified” students to boost finances. The lawsuit said Infilaw’s “for-profit framework and culture dominated academic issues.” Ms. Bernier said in an interview that at one faculty meeting, Charlotte’s then-President Chidi Ogene mentioned the need to boost school finances to satisfy investors and warned of layoffs if the school didn’t grow.

Mr. Ogene denies making such a statement but says he discussed with the staff ways to control costs and raise revenue. A spokeswoman for the Charlotte School says the allegations in the lawsuit are “without merit.”

The U.S. attorney in Orlando has declined to get involved in the suit, which calls for the government to be reimbursed $285 million in student aid. If successful as a whistleblower, Ms. Bernier would stand to get a portion of any recovered money.

The Charlotte school closed in August after failing to satisfy state regulators’ concerns about its finances and regulatory problems with the bar association stemming from admissions practices, according to North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein. He said in a written statement he is investigating for possible violations of consumer-protection laws, relating partly to “how the school marketed itself to prospective students.” Fewer than one in five original members of the class of 2016 graduated, passed the bar exam and landed a job that required a law degree, Mr. Stein said.

Mr. Stein has urged U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to use federal law to forgive any student debt taken out by Charlotte students during or after the fall 2016 semester. An Education Department spokeswoman said Ms. DeVos is considering the request.

InfiLaw is in talks with nonprofit schools to take over or go into partnership with the Phoenix and Jacksonville schools, says Mr. Lively.

Mr. Lively says he never got rich on InfiLaw and likely would have earned more had he stayed in nonprofit education. He said his role in the company will be determined by the new owners of the schools, and that he will tell them what he told Sterling shortly after the initial purchase.

“They asked the question, ‘Who’s dispensable here?’” Mr. Lively said. “I raised my hand. ‘If you think I can be of any value I’m happy to stay. If you want me to move on, I’m very cool with that.’ ”

Appeared in the November 25, 2017, print edition as 'Rise and Fall of a Law-School Empire.