Several years after the Charleston School of Law became engulfed in chaos over a pending sale to a private company, its president says the institution has rebounded in enrollment and finances.
"The school is turning around quicker than anyone could imagine," President Ed Bell said Friday. "We literally thought it would take four to five years, but we've done it in less than two."
Bell noted that in October 2015, the school had only 82 members in its freshman class. Last year, that had climbed to 202, and he said he expects between 200 and 225 this fall.
He pointed out law school enrollment is dropping in general across the country, "and we're actually bucking the trend."
Meanwhile, the law school's Financial Ratio Responsibility score — a federal benchmark of a school's financial health — rose from a failing minus 0.6 in 2014 and 2015, to 2.6 last year, he said.
A school must score a 1.5 or higher to avoid getting on the department's so-called "naughty list." The Department of Education has not published its 2015-16 list.
"We've made some good decisions. We've kept our cost in check. ... We've hired back our professors," he said. "We made a little money last year, and all of that is being plowed back into school. We're building our facilities, improving our library and improving our course schedule."
The Charleston School of Law's low points came as it wrestled with student and faculty blowback over a plan to sell the for-profit school to InfiLaw, a Naples, Florida-based consortium of lower-tier law schools. Instead, Bell, a Georgetown lawyer, took over in 2015 and is leading a transition to a nonprofit.
That's taking time as state and federal agencies scrutinize the school's plans for any additional money it might make in the future.
"One of our applications (for nonprofit status) is over 800 pages," he said. "We're going along according to schedule, but it's going to take a little while to finalize the transition."
It was able to pay off a $6 million debt to InfilLaw while keeping tuition in check. Tuition for the upcoming year is $40,596.
The school is appealing its failing rating on another federal list that compares graduates' incomes with their student debt. Bell said his goal is that future students can cut their student debt in half within five years — without abandoning the school's emphasis on encouraging graduates to take unconventional jobs, at least at first.
"We encourage students immediately after getting out of school just to take a couple of years and give back," he said. "Go be a policeman, go be a fireman. Go work as a law clerk. A lot of these are low-paying jobs, but it teaches them something they will take with them for the rest of their lives."
"As of July 1, we'll be off the list and we will never get back on it again, according to what we've been told by DOE," he said.
A spokesman at the department provided only the current rankings and would not verify Bell's claim.
Meanwhile, the school's other positive benchmarks include its students' success in national moot court competitions (It won an unprecedented sixth straight title in the National Tax Moot Court championship earlier this year) and with the Princeton Review, which rates its faculty in its Top 10 for two years in a row.