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Will Cooley's Bar Passage Woes Lead to Accreditation Scare?

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

It's bar results season, and the the news seems to be bad nationwide.

July 2014 seems to hold the distinction as the biggest bloodbath in recent memory. California, for example, saw its lowest bar passage rate in nearly 10 years. The National Conference of Bar Examiners blamed "less able" test-takers; deans are pointing the finger at the NCBE and demanding a recount (or a "thorough investigation of the administration and scoring of the July 2014 bar exam," if you want to be technical about it).

And Cooley -- a school famous for ranking itself as the second-best in the country, for sponsoring a minor-league baseball team, and for opening up franchise campuses in multiple states? Its low passage rates are making some wonder if the school will run into trouble with the American Bar Association.

Tweaking the Formula

Cooley is falling behind its Michigan peers, Crain's Detroit Business reports. In July 2012, the state tweaked its bar passage formula to give greater weight to essays over the multiple choice (Multistate Bar Exam or MBE) portion of the test. Schools across the state saw their passage rates dip, including the Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

But for the July 2014 examination, the formula was again tweaked. Many schools recovered in part (an impressive feat considering the nationwide drop in bar passage rates). Cooley didn't.

In July, only 55 percent of Cooley's first-timers passed. With repeaters included, the rate falls to 44 percent. Other schools' passage rates increased by 8 to 15 percent, reports Crain's. The numbers, it should be noted, have not yet been adjusted for appeals. Here are all five Michigan law schools' rates for the exam:

  • Statewide: 87 percent
  • University of Michigan: 87 percent
  • Michigan State University: 84 percent
  • Wayne State University: 81 percent
  • University of Detroit Mercy: 65 percent
  • WMU Thomas Cooley: 55 percent

The ABA's '15% Cutoff'

Crain's also points to an interesting statistic that could lead to some trouble for Cooley: the ABA's 15 percent cutoff.

In order to maintain accreditation, a school must maintain a first-time taker passage rate within 15 percent of the statewide rate where most of its graduates apply for three out of the past five years or 75 percent of all exam-takers must eventually pass.

For 2012, Cooley was at 15.91 percentage points below. And though more recent final numbers are not available, if other schools' passage rates went up after the most recent formula tweak, but Cooley's rates didn't, that doesn't portend well for the nation's largest law school by enrollment.

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