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Concord Law School is poised to become the first fully online Juris Doctor program at a public university.

Purdue University, a public institution in Indiana, on April 27 announced plans to purchase Kaplan University—a national consortium of online and brick-and-mortar degree programs that includes Concord Law School, the nation’s oldest online law school.

In the short term, the school’s administrators, legal program and course offerings will stay the same, as will the day-to-day operations, said Concord dean Martin Pritikin.

The move is expected to add credibility to Concord’s program, especially should it be renamed to reflect Purdue’s ownership. It also could be a boost to the small industry of online law programs, which like traditional law schools, has suffered waning interest in recent years.

“Certainly, being affiliated with Purdue, which has a well-deserved national reputation, could only mean good things for us,” Pritikin said. “It might make people more willing to give us a second look.”

Kaplan Inc. launched Concord Law School in 1998, when online education was in its infancy. There are still only a handful of fully online J.D. programs in the country, though a growing number of American Bar Association-accredited law schools have launched online LL.M programs and master’s programs for nonlawyers.

Skeptics say online programs can’t offer the same quality of experience as traditional law schools, but proponents counter that those programs widen access to students who could not otherwise obtain a law degree.

“I think that’s the direction of where legal education is going anyway,” Pritikin said.

Concord’s deal with Purdue has its critics, who include Ben Miller, senior director of post-secondary education at the think tank the Center for American Progress.

“I think there is a risk that marketing Concord as a good legal option from Purdue University could really fool students into thinking that they’re getting something they’re not,” Miller said, adding that the school’s alumni are only eligible to take the bar in California, and that its bar pass results are relatively low when compared with law schools accredited by the ABA. “If you see something that says, ‘Be part of Purdue, a well-respected research university. Be a Boilermaker,’ you think you’re buying one thing and you’re getting something totally different. There’s a risk that students will feel mislead.”

Pritikin said Purdue would not risk its reputation by buying Kaplan University if it didn’t believe in its programs. “It reflects on the quality that Concord and Kaplan has already been providing, that Purdue wanted to enter into this transaction,” he said.

Affiliating with a public university is no panacea for a struggling law school, said Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency—a nonprofit organization that advocates for better consumer information for law students. Thomas M. Cooley Law School aligned with the public Western Michigan University in 2014 to become Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, but enrollment at the school has continued to fall since then, he noted.

Concord, like many ABA-accredited law schools, has faced enrollment challenges since the recession. The school enrolled approximately 1,200 students in 2008, but currently has about 600. That represents a modest increase from the previous year, and admissions are slowly recovering, Pritikin said.

The Kaplan University acquisition allows Purdue to quickly expand into the growing online education market, where it has fallen behind other higher education institutions that launched online programs years ago. Kaplan University has 32,000 students, about 3,000 employees and 15 physical locations nationwide, although the majority of its programs are offered online. Purdue University does not have a traditional, ABA-accredited law school within its system.

“None of us knows how fast or in what direction online higher education will evolve, but we know its role will grow, and we intend that Purdue be positioned to be a leader as that happens,” said Purdue President and former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels in an announcement of the deal. “A careful analysis made it clear that we are very ill-equipped to build the necessary capabilities ourselves, and that the smart course would be to acquire them if we could.”

Purdue University is paying just $1 to acquire Kaplan University from its parent company Graham Holdings Co., which used to own the Washington Post before selling the newspaper to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. But a subsidiary of Kaplan Inc., which is still owned by Graham Holdings, will run the former Kaplan University programs for 30 years in exchange for 12.5 percent of their revenue.

Concord and the other former Kaplan University programs are expected to be financially self-sustaining and won’t be propped up with state funds, Purdue officials said.

Concord’s program primarily appeals to mid-career, older students, Pritikin said.

“They want to advance their careers or switch careers,” he said. “They work full-time, they have families. It’s not necessarily that they couldn’t get into a brick-and-mortar law school. It’s that given their circumstances, if brick and mortar where their only option, they wouldn’t be going to law school.”

Fully online J.D. programs are currently ineligible for ABA accreditation, since its rules mandate that no more than 15 of a student’s 90 required credits are delivered through distance education. However, Mitchell Hamline School of Law obtained special permission from the ABA in 2015 to offer a hybrid online and on-campus program, and Syracuse University College of Law last year announced plans to follow suit.

California is currently the only state that allows graduates of unaccredited, online law schools to sit for the bar exam upon completing their degrees, and bar passage remains a challenge for alumni of Concord and similar programs. Just 12.5 percent of online law graduates passed the July 2016 bar, according to the State Bar of California. Concord fared slightly better, with an overall passage rate of 16 percent.

In order to qualify for the California bar, students in nonaccredited law schools must first pass the state’s First-Year Law Students’ Examination, which is also known as the “Baby Bar.” The one-day exam is designed to measure knowledge base and analytical and writing skills. There, too, students have struggled. Just 26 and 33 percent of online students passed the baby bar in June and October of 2016, respectively.

Pritikin is trying to increase bar exam access for Concord graduates. He has petitioned Arizona, New Mexico and Connecticut to allow the school’s alumni to take those jurisdictions’ bar exams, arguing that Concord’s relatively low cost—a degree runs about $50,000 total—produces attorneys who can better serve low-income clients because they aren’t saddled with massive educational debt. He has yet to receive responses from those jurisdictions.

“I’m being patient and hopeful,” Pritikin said. “I think if we’re evaluated on the merits, we can hold our own with a number of ABA schools. My goal is to help break down some of the preconceived notions people have about online learning and online law school.”

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ