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VLS, UVM Forge Joint Degree Program to Curtail Costs

First-year students, from left, John Lowery, of Brattleboro, Vt., Chris Sheridan, of New York City, N.Y., and Mike Marotta, of Rockaway, N.J., walk across campus after class at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vt., on Sept. 27, 2013. The school and the University of Vermont are in talks to create a combined degree. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

First-year students, from left, John Lowery, of Brattleboro, Vt., Chris Sheridan, of New York City, N.Y., and Mike Marotta, of Rockaway, N.J., walk across campus after class at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vt., on Sept. 27, 2013. The school and the University of Vermont are in talks to create a combined degree. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

Vermont Law School and the University of Vermont yesterday announced plans for a joint degree program that would let students complete an undergraduate degree and a law degree within five years, in an effort to help curtail the rising costs of higher education and attract new students to the campuses.

The so-called “Vermont 3-2 program” still needs to be approved by the faculties of both institutions, and the schools released few details about how the arrangement would work. Officials hope the program off the ground in the fall of 2014, but have yet to figured out how to handle the admissions process, among other hurdles.

In theory, the program could offer students a big cost savings. In-state tuition at UVM is $13,700 annually, while a single year of tuition at VLS runs $46,000. Both exclude eating and living expenses, which can run thousand of dollars higher.

“Ten years ago you wouldn’t hear students and families talk much about cost and debt,” said Thomas Gustafson, UVM’s Vice President for Administration and University Relations. “Now, when you see admissions tours come through, it’s the first question we get, every time. (The 3-2 program) is about attracting students, and giving students in Vermont an option they don’t have. We’re in good shape, but it’s the lifeblood of any institution. You always want to attract better students, more students.”

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, who introduced legislation that encourages colleges to develop faster pathways for students to earn a degree, cheered Friday’s announcement.

“I applaud UVM and Vermont Law School for this innovative and practical idea to make higher education more affordable for Vermonters,” Welch said. “Keeping the doors to college open for all students will require this brand of leadership and innovation from higher education administrators nationwide.”

The news comes as many law schools around the country are experiencing a fall off in applicants and as Vermont Law School struggles with budget problems.

The school’s class of 2016 was expected to be about 30 students smaller than the Class of 2015 and for the past year VLS has sought to close a $3.3 million budget gap by cutting 12 staff positions and shifting eight professors from full-time to part time status.

“This initiative is one of many you are going to see from VLS to make a law degree more affordable and accessible,” said VLS Vice President for External Affairs and law professor Cheryl Hanna, adding that VLS has seen growing interest in it’s online master’s degree program.

Earlier this year, VLS welcomed its first students into an “accelerated JD program,” in which students pursue their law degree in two years instead of the traditional three.

While potentially offering students significant savings, the “3-2” program and the existing accelerated program attract motivated students prepared to tackle a heavy courseload in a condensed schedule, Hanna said.

“It’s going to be a student who is extremely, highly motivated and has a sense of what they want to do,” Hanna said.

Discussions thus far have been largely confined to the institutions’ presidents, Tom Sullivan at UVM and Marc Mihaly at VLS — there isn’t even a formal proposal for the schools’ faculties to consider, Gustafson said.

It is not the first time the institutions have collaborated. UVM and VLS currently offer a dual master’s degree for students in environmental science and policy, and host conferences together. Moreover, VLS says that UVM is already its top feeder school.

Additionally, the schools’ currently have a program in which students can spend three years at UVM obtaining their undergraduate degree, and then three years at VLS. In that program, the UVM graduates have to pass the Law School Admission Test before they are accepted at VLS, Hanna said. VLS is the only law school in the state.

“The idea that, ‘Why doesn’t UVM and the law school do more stuff together?’ has always been floating around,” Gustafson said.

The University of New Hampshire and Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord merged in 2010, and the newly branded law school, the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

A similar change in Vermont is not in the offing, Gustafson said.

“It’s not on the table at all,” Gustafson said. “We’re not talking about a merger.”

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.