Ave Maria Law has fallen a long ways in the decade since its subsidized first class graduated.
Where once it may have been a small law school with a viable mission, a better version of Liberty or Regent perhaps, its Class of 2013 graduated 159 people (double from its first class), it has a sub-40% LST employment score, and the full-freight cost of attendance is over $60,000 a year. In the Fall of 2014, Ave Maria enrolled 112 poor souls with a median LSAT score of 143 and a median GPA of 3.06. Many of them should abandon all hope, as they will be likely tithing to loan servicers until the Second Coming [of bankruptcy reform].
With those numbers, there is little room for debate: Ave Maria Law is a diabolical shithole with little chance of salvation.
This is what passes for Ave Maria's "good news" these days:
Ave Maria School of Law on Thursday will officially announce that it will purchase the North Naples campus and launch a $3.2 million capital campaign, thanks to an anonymous $1 million gift.They are literally celebrating ten (10) people passing the bar out of twelve (12) takers. They should also place a plaque on campus somewhere, as long as the town elders allow such small-scale displays of vanity. One has to wonder if they celebrated last summer, when only 43 of their 76 bar examinees passed the Florida bar, the lowest number in a state full of derelict toilets, secular or otherwise.
The law school will also celebrate ... being ranked No. 1 in the state of Florida with 83 percent of graduates passing the February bar exam on the first try, far exceeding the statewide average passing rate of 64.3 percent.
With such an abyssal annual bar passage rate (60.2% average over the last two attempts), most law schools would cower in shame. But not Ave Maria. No, in its full vanity, Ave Maria celebrates a land transfer between quasi-related entities and a good deal of their graduates failing the bar multiple times.
But there are, of course, other benefits to buying one's own plot of earth:
With the purchase of the campus, a significant savings in rental expense will be realized, thus freeing up funds for scholarships, new academic initiatives, campus infrastructure improvements and faculty development. The campus purchase also provides for naming opportunities on campus.Let's actually look at Ave Maria's finances for a minute and see if this checks out.
According to its 2013 tax return posted publicly, Ave Maria (which gives out "juris doctorate" degrees, apparently, whatever those are) had a debt ratio of 170%, with assets of around $3.4 million and liabilities around $5.8 million. That's kind of debt-heavy as it is, particularly for a non-profit having to use steep discounts to sell its existing inventory. When one looks at Schedule L, page 28 if you use Guidestar, one learns that Tom Monaghan appears to be the school's principal lender at the time, with $4.8 million due on a loan for "general operating expenses."
Both the school's revenue and functional expenses are around $16M. Very little of that $16M appears to have come from grants, donations, or contributions from the school's specific foundation. On the expense side, over $5.8 million was paid out in salary and wages alone. They report $1.5 million in annual occupancy expenses, some of which would be paid out anyway, since "occupancy" does not equal "rent" in IRS lingo.
So despite having net assets of -$2.4 million and apparently barely breaking even due to the operating expenses listed on their 2013 form 990, Ave Maria has now purchased of a massive tract of land. They claim this will free up cash for lots of new endeavors.
The question is: how?!
Collier County, Florida is swell enough that they have made their real estate records public and freely available online. Reviewing the records, one finds the following:
- A "mortgage and security agreement" (instr. no. 5108897) granted by Ave Maria Law on 4/15/15 to First Florida Integrity Bank for $7.5 million. Notably, the mortgage makes reference to "final payment" due under the note on April 15, 2018.
- A "second mortgage and security agreement" (instr. no. 5108900) granted by Ave Maria Law on 4/15/15 to "Mary's Law Angels, LLC" to secure an indebtedness of $5.6 million. A search of Florida's corporate records shows that Mary's Law Angels, LLC, was incorporated in January and happens to have the same address as Ave Maria School of Law, with Ave Maria Law's president serving as the manager. (If you already have a 501(c)(3) foundation to support the school, why create this LLC?)
- A warranty deed (instr. no. 5108895) whose stamp identifies the consideration for this purchase as $13 million
If all that's true, it would mean that - at least for the next three years - Ave Maria's real occupancy costs would increase dramatically over what is shown on the 2013 return before dropping. At the absolute minimum, they appear to have taken on a lot of new debt that would not appear to increase "funds for scholarships, new academic initiatives, campus infrastructure improvements and faculty development," at least while the debt is being serviced.
Because interest in law school is flat-lined on a good day, I'm highly skeptical there's any real cost savings at work here. What did appears to happen, however, is that Tom Monaghan's overall vanity project, Ave Maria University, just got a $13 million cash boost (selling an asset in less-than-free market conditions), a seemingly-related for-profit LLC just became a second mortgagee and creditor to the law school, Monaghan himself may still be an individual creditor to the law school, and the school's main source of past revenue has been tuition receipts.
So who's actually paying for that building? Students, and maybe donors who can't find a better charity than a shit-stained law school that already burned its benefactors once by relocating on the whims of a billionaire.
They can talk about capital contributions and campaigns, but the school is fifteen years old. There are no dying wealthy alums pining to dump their estates into Ave Maria's endowment account. The oldest alums are likely peeved the school moved to Florida. Monaghan may be able to find new Catholic blood to buy into the law school part of his project, but if those contributions actually existed, one would think they would have tapped those years ago.
Knowing what we know about law school in general and Ave Maria's finances in particular, it is difficult to see Ave Maria Law as a viable long-term project absent some serious propping-up by its founder and other rich folks who take up his mantle. In fact, there's a chance that this sale was a play in eventually winding down the law school. After all, unlike many non-profit universities, the law school is a separate entity from the university itself.
As a commenter to Part One noted, the Department of Education uses a Financial Responsibility Composite Score to judge an institution's financial health using three ratios. It is but one measure that the DOE uses, and schools are allowed to show alternative means of financial health. Yet, the scores may be instructive in this case. Scores range from -1.0 to 3.0. From 1.5 to 3.0 is financially healthy. On the August 2014 release, Cooley had a 2.9. Albany and Charleston had 3s. Ave Maria Law had a -0.5, one of the worst 100 institutions in America, more surrounded by proprietary cosmetology schools than colleges of law.
Of course, it's possible the financial picture is bright, they've slashed expenses from 2013, that donors will line up, and/or that the purchase of land really will free up new money thanks to God-fearing accountants.
None of that changes the fact that the school is a blood-curdling, near open-admissions compost heap that makes Stetson and Nova Southeastern look like Georgetown.
A Prayer for Relief
Dear Lord, please close this school down.
I do not, in any way, doubt Mr. Monaghan's religious beliefs or his sincere desire to produce orthodox Catholic attorneys. And frankly, if he wants to be moral dictator over an arch-conservative town in southwestern Florida, so be it, so long as he doesn't enslave anyone.
But, taking his intentions at face value, the best thing Mr. Monaghan can do for everyone involved is to close this school down.
If he or others genuinely want to aid the cause of conservative Catholicism in the legal sphere, he can set up his foundation to give scholarships to students from super-Catholic schools like St. Thomas More or Franciscan to study at reputable law schools.
In this day and age, having those kids come to Ave Maria and study is likely doing more harm than good. A "real" Catholic going to even a second-tier school like the University of Florida or Florida State has an exponentially better chance of aiding the Catholic cause in his or her legal career than any student that graduates from Ave Maria Law.
Even with a full-ride scholarship, an Ave Maria graduate will incur at least $60,000 in principal in living expenses. With only 1.3% of graduates working in large firms and 18.2% working in solo shops or small firms, that debt will be considerable even for the best candidates under very good scenarios.
For someone with a 50% scholarship, real costs are likely to be more around $150,000.
If Ave Maria lures devout Catholics to study law there instead of at "better" options - including not studying law at all - it is playing an active part in disproportionately placing its target product in troublesome debt.
How can conservative Catholics best serve the Lord when they are deeply indebted and un- or underemployed? When the best case scenario for 95% of them is paying down debt working in family law, immigration, etc.? When they attend a law school who's brand places them at a disadvantage in a swamped legal market?
Ave Maria University will never be elite. For Ave Maria Law, it's a longshot to ever be mediocre again. Absent the school being truly beneficent and letting students attend for free including living costs, the school is a net negative, both for Catholicism and for the legal academy.
Please, Lord, close this school down!