Following up on my previous post, Rebranded Vermont Law & Graduate School Aims To Increase Enrollment By 100 Students With Three New Master’s Degree Programs: Inside Higher Ed, Struggling Law School Seeks to Reinvent Itself:
After years of declining enrollment and wobbly finances, Vermont Law School is rebranding and expanding its graduate degree offerings. Will the gambit pay off?
South Royalton, Vt., is a quiet, unassuming town with a population of just over 600. Like most colonial-era New England hamlets, it boasts a smattering of historic buildings and landmarks, including a memorial commemorating the birthplace of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
South Royalton’s main claim to fame, however, is that it is home to the Green Mountain State’s only law school.
Vermont Law School has doled out juris doctor degrees to students from across New England and beyond since 1972. Many came to the sleepy village in central Vermont because of the college’s sharp focus on environmental law and policy, as well as its progressive outlook on justice.
But like many small institutions around the country, in recent years VLS has suffered from declining enrollment, shifting regional demographics and wobbly finances. Now, the only college in Vermont that offers a J.D. is looking to reinvent itself by betting big on a new slate of master’s degree programs.
In June, officials announced a restructuring plan that includes adding three new master’s programs and changing the college’s name to the Vermont Law and Graduate School, a rebranding that officials hope will better encapsulate the growing diversity of its educational offerings.
The overhaul was made possible in part by an anonymous $8 million donation, the largest ever received by the independent college.
The law school offered a handful of master’s degrees, including the standard master of laws (L.L.M.), even before it added the “G” to its acronym. The restructuring, however, adds degree offerings to the graduate school and puts an equal focus on its non-J.D. programs. It also greatly expands students’ options for online classes.
Rodney Smolla, a veteran lawyer and higher education leader, took over as the Vermont Law and Graduate School’s president in July, just weeks after the changes were announced. He said the college’s innovative restructuring plan and progressive history drew him to the job. ...
According to data from the nonprofit Law School Transparency, VLS welcomed a matriculating class of 212 first-year law students in 2010, but by 2013 that number had fallen to 129.
The drop led to financial difficulties, which were exacerbated by VLS’s independent status, meaning it was not backed by a larger university or system that might help cover costs. In 2018, the college cut tenure for many professors as part of a larger restructuring effort to address budget shortfalls.
Smolla believes that trajectory is changing. Last year’s class of incoming J.D. candidates numbered 174, the college’s highest since the recession. This year, there are 150 new residential J.D. students; a new online J.D. program already filled its 20-seat allotment and now has a waiting list.
“I think we’ve turned the corner,” Smolla said. “I’m very optimistic.”