- Law school students can now take up to half of their classes online following a recent policy change by the American Bar Association.
- ABA’s accrediting body voted last week to raise the ceiling on the number of credits students can earn online for their J.D., up from one-third.
- It also struck down a prohibition on first-year law students taking no more than 10 credit hours remotely.
The new flexibility follows the association loosening its rules around distance education in 2020, when the spread of the coronavirus forced many higher ed institutions to flip to online learning. This meant law schools did not need to seek ABA approval to exceed the one-third credit limit.
However, when pandemic-era restrictions largely subsided, students still clamored for remote options.
An ABA survey last year revealed more than half of law students would prefer taking a class via a webcast than in person. Nearly 69% of surveyed students said they wanted the ability to take more distance learning classes than law schools allowed.
The ABA’s new distance learning limit matches the one the U.S. Department of Education sets for colleges, which need accreditor approval for programs that exceed half of credits taken online.
The association said in a memo last week that the policy shift will cut down on the number of law schools wanting exemptions from the one-third credit rule.
Under the change, law schools need to advise students taking online courses to check whether they could still be admitted to the bar in their respective states. Some jurisdictions limit how many online credits students can take to be eligible for the bar exam.
The ABA, which accredits about 200 law schools, considers a distance learning class to be one where students are separate from instructors for more than one-third of the course.
The association had already begun work last year to clarify distance learning definitions. One change made it so remote classes weren’t counted toward students’ one-third limit if they were due to an accommodation or exceptional circumstance.
And the ABA has begun experimenting with distance education programs in recent years, including approving about a dozen pilots at law schools nationwide.
An official from one of those law schools, at Syracuse University, in New York, told Higher Ed Dive last year that many students were interested in pursuing a J.D. but were limited by their circumstances, such as working a full-time job or living in a remote area. A virtual program helped mitigate those barriers.
The ABA has also tried to relax admissions standards in the last few years.
In 2021, the association formally greenlit law schools to use the Graduate Record Examinations, or GRE, as an entrance exam, though some had already been doing so.
Although it has tried to go further with shrinking testing requirements, it’s been unsuccessful.
One of its governing bodies last year signed off on a rule change that would have eliminated the mandate that ABA-accredited law schools use the Law School Admission Test, known as the LSAT, or another standardized assessment in admissions.
But a second governance panel, composed of hundreds of law school and bar officials, rejected the measure in February. That body, known as the House of Delegates, is slated to vote on it once again in August.
The ABA similarly tried to nix standardized test requirements in 2018, though that effort also failed.