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The U.S. Department of Education has settled with five free-standing law schools after an investigation showed that those institutions “improperly disbursed” federal financial aid to students enrolled in unaccredited master of laws programs. 

Albany Law School, Atlanta’s John Marshall School of Law, Brooklyn Law School, New England Law–Boston and New York Law School handed out nearly $2.9 million total to 92 students in their master’s programs from July 2017 to June 2022, according to a department news release. The schools agreed to pay back the federal funds and not seek to recoup the money from the students.

Three of the schools were fined, though the department didn’t specify which. The agreements do not constitute an admission of wrongdoing or liability by the schools, per the release.

“Today’s actions demonstrate our commitment to protect the integrity of the federal student aid programs,” Richard Cordray, chief operating officer for Federal Student Aid, said in the release. “Through our ongoing work, we will continue to protect both students and taxpayers.”

The Biden administration has moved to step up enforcement in recent years in part by creating an enforcement office within Federal Student Aid.

The American Bar Association accredits law schools’ juris doctor (J.D.) degree programs but not their master’s programs. Because free-standing law schools are not part of a broader university, they need to be recognized by an institutional accreditor to offer master’s programs that are eligible for federal student aid.

The five schools involved with the settlement were accredited only by the American Bar Association when the aid was disbursed for the master’s programs. There are 15 free-standing law schools nationally, six of which lacked the necessary accreditation to disburse aid for their master’s programs. One of the schools self-reported the violation in October 2021.

Jace Gatewood, dean and CEO of Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed that the school “inadvertently disbursed” federal financial aid to one student in its master’s program during the 2017–18 academic year. The school paid $1,378.76 back to the department under the settlement. 

“AJMLS wishes to emphasize that this was an incident involving only one student, and no students or former students of AJMLS will bear any financial burden because of this settlement,” Gatewood said. “Moving forward, AJMLS has implemented rigorous policies and procedures to ensure full compliance with all Title IV requirements. We remain committed to the highest standards of educational excellence and integrity.”