Vermont Law School makes more cuts as class size drops

Rep. Sarah Buxton
Rep. Sarah Buxton

Sarah Buxton, a state representative for the towns of Tunbridge and South Royalton, got some unpleasant, if not totally unexpected, news when she returned to her job at the Vermont Law School after a four-month stint at the Statehouse. Buxton’s position — assistant director of community relations and alumni affairs — was axed at the end of May, leaving the 34-year old lawmaker out of work.

Buxton’s involuntary departure is one of a number of cost-cutting decisions that the Vermont Law School has made in the past six months. The school is grappling with a trend that’s afflicting law schools almost across the board — fewer applicants are applying due to dwindling job prospects and the specter of student debt.

Vermont Law School is particularly vulnerable to financial backlash of that trend because it lacks the shield of a “mothership.” Most law schools are housed within universities, which have been able to absorb their losses.

Class size for the J.D. program at VLS increased from 152 in 2011 to 171 in 2012, but VLS President Marc Mihaly expects it to take a 30-student plunge this year. Peter Glenshaw, communications director for VLS, said this number has typically fallen between 150 and 170 students during the last 20 years. The school is still accepting applications, and school officials say they won’t have a final count until the students show up in September.

Mihaly says he is also worried that they’ll see a decline in the average GPA and LSAT scores of the incoming class.

Starting last September, VLS enacted a plan to shrink the school in response to a tuition dollar drought that left it with a $3.3 million budget gap. The school attracted national attention last winter when it cut 12 staff positions — 10 were through voluntary buyouts and two were involuntary.

This past spring, in a quieter move, VLS whittled down its faculty. Eight professors, of the 40 who were eligible, voluntarily moved from full-time to part-time positions. Mihaly estimated that two or three other positions were eliminated when professors departed for personal reasons.

VLS has been pruning expenses elsewhere, too. It has cut down on cleaning services and changed the hours and offerings of its food service, among other changes. At one point, there were conversations about whether coffee would continue to be available in offices, according to one staff member.

An analysis by Bloomberg Business Week shows VLS had the third-highest acceptance rate in 2012, with 83 percent of applicants being admitted. [In past years, the rate has typically fallen between 60 percent and 75 percent.] That prompted The Careerist, a law job blog, to place it in the unflattering category of “law schools where your pet poodle can probably get in.”

But VLS’s acceptance rate isn’t as munificent as it may seem, according to Mihaly. The school attracts a certain type of student, Mihaly says — people more concerned with changing the world than making money — and those who don’t fit that mold generally don’t apply.

Mark Mihaly, president of Vermont Law School. Courtesy photo
Mark Mihaly, president of Vermont Law School. Courtesy photo

“We’ve always accepted a relatively high percentage of our applicants because the people who apply to us self-select.” But with a dwindling applicant pool, Mihaly says the school has to make sure entry standards don’t slip to an unacceptable level.

“The problem we have to watch out for is we can’t take people who we believe probably won’t succeed in law school or won’t pass the bar,” Mihaly said. “To use a trite word, it’s immoral. And there are people applying like that. We are just a little more vigilant now.”

VLS has been able to make up its budget shortfall, but has the financial anxiety trickled down to the students? Mihaly said the buyouts, faculty changes and other cost-cutting endeavors were done in a way that didn’t impact the academics at VLS, but even so, the students haven’t been immune to the school’s fiscal concerns.

“The big student concern is, are we going to lose teachers we really value?” Mihaly said.

Mihaly says school administrators have largely been able to alleviate that concern by avoiding faculty layoffs, and because they’ve been ”open about our budget numbers with the students.”

Buxton, a VLS graduate who has filed for unemployment to hold her over while she looks for a job that can accommodate her annual four-month absence during the legislative session, observed signs of frustration among the student body.

“With a population of students who are stressed to the max and learning to argue, it did become tough at times,” she said.

Buxton said staff have also felt the strain as they were asked to pick up the duties of  their departed coworkers.

“A number of staff who opted not to take the buyout are being required to reshape their responsibilities in a way that doesn’t support the best that those individuals have to offer the institution,” Buxton said. “I saw real frustration and some serious concerns.”

Weathering the storm

Mihaly said he thinks there may be a silver lining to the school’s cash-strapped state. The upshot of the absence of an encompassing university is that VLS has had to assume a lead role in finding ways to make legal education make it more affordable.

The buffer that big universities provide to other schools won’t be permanent, Mihaly said, and it may be preventing them from adapting to the changing contours of the legal profession.

“They used to be cash cows. We never were a cash cow. Now the universities are pumping cash into them, and we don’t have a mothership to do that, but that’s a vulnerability and a strength.”

Tuition at VLS is roughly $46,000 for 2013 — a 2 percent increase over 2012 — but Mihaly says VLS has committed to reducing the cost of tuition in the next several years.

Debevoise Hall on the Vermont Law School campus in South Royalton. VTD/Josh Larkin
Debevoise Hall on the Vermont Law School campus in South Royalton. VTD/Josh Larkin

Mihaly points to its accelerated J.D. program, which debuted last month with an enrollment of 12 students, as one of the ways VLS is trying to make a law school more affordable, and therefore more attractive, to students. The program will allow law students to get their degree in two years, saving them a year’s worth of tuition.

VLS has also been experimenting with distance learning for some of their masters degree programs, and enrollment there is growing, according to Peter Glenshaw, director of communications for the law school.

Another piece of good news for VLS is that the job placement rate for their graduates — which, historically, has hovered at around 75 percent within two to three months of passing the bar — hasn’t declined, despite the downturn in the legal profession, according to Mihaly.

“We’ve been utterly unaffected by the drop in employment and the reason is there is such a diversity in the direction our students go in,” he said.

The school’s environmental law program ranked first in the 2013 U.S. News & World Report ratings for the fifth year in a row, and Mihaly hopes that the legal specialty will continue to attract applicants.

Daniel Richardson graduated from VLS, where he is now an adjunct faculty member, in addition to being the incoming president of the Vermont Bar Association.

Richardson said he thinks VLS has been prudent in the cutbacks and changes it has pursued. “As far as I can see I think the cuts seem to be strategic. They are making cuts that are designed to make them leaner and capable of running… A lot of law schools are going through these transitions. Vermont Law School is just doing it more publicly… I think they’ve gotten some negative feedback because everyone is conservative in the legal profession and academia.”

This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. to reflect the following changes:

Class size for the J.D. program at VLS has typically been between 150 and 170 students for the last 20 years. This story originally stated the average was roughly 200 students. Class size increased from 2011 to 2012, but is expected to decrease in 2013.

The VLS environmental law program has been ranked number one by U.S. News & World Report for five years in a row, not four, as was originally reported.

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  • Clancy DeSmet

    Forty-six thousand dollars a year is absolutely ludicrous, and it’s unsustainable.

    By the way, interest rates on student loans will double next week. Congress has been very ineffective in supporting the 99%.

  • Clancy DeSmet

    In 2006, the tuition was “only” $28K/year.

  • Townsend Peters

    This is not just declining enrollment. Under former dean Shields, VLS went on a hiring and spending spree that was obviously unsustainable because demographics already indicated enrollment would decline.

  • Dave camel

    The laid off faculty should have no problem finding partner or “of counsel” level positions at large law firms since they choose to give up these types of positions and the opportunity to make millions in order to teach law school.

  • Dave Stevens

    Huh, a college in the state of Vermont with a declining enrollment due to abnormally high tuition that isn’t sustainable by any stretch of the imagination. Atleast we’re consistent.

  • Law school is a scam. Anyone thinking about law school should do research, read some blogs, read some books, and talk to young grads. Do not invest $150,000 plus and three years of your life for a 50% chance at a job that will only last a few years.

  • David Carpenter

    I am not sure where all the bitterness is coming from in the comments, but they certainly seem long on hyperbole. I am a 1997 joint degree graduate and have had a very successful, enjoyable career for the past 16 years, as have most of my classmates. Vermont Law School was a great experience for me and for pretty much everyone I stay in touch with.

  • Karis North

    I’m a 1995 JD and I’ve been practicing environmental law since I left VLS – I have a terrific fulfilling and, yes, lucrative career and the education I got at VLS was stellar. I’m a Cornell undergrad and I chose to attend VLS specifically because of its reputation in environmental law. I’ve been in mega firms and smaller firms, and there is no question my VLS education prepared me well for whatever came across my path.

    It is a challenging time for the law world — not just legal education. I commend Dean Mihaly, and the VLS administration, faculty and staff for taking the lead in making the hard choices to ensure the sustainability of VLS. They continue to be innovative, by adding programs like the Accelerated JD, which allows students to finish in 2 years, and reduces tuition cost and time out of the work force. The distance learning program is also bringing new students to VLS — many of whom chose to take come portion of their degree on campus — but allows them the flexibility of working and learning.

    I believe that the all of the faculty who chose to change their status are continuing to teach at VLS, and are simply making a transition towards retirement. That is not uncommon in either the academic or business worlds.

  • Karis North

    I’d also like to share some of the terrific work VLS is doing in land use and civil rights. Below are links to recent articles by VLS professors on two of the Supreme Court’s decisions last week. The Echeverria article on the Koontz case was one of the most emailed articles in the NY Times last week, and the Gardina article in the Huffington Post also received significant attention. These are just two examples of the caliber of professor that teaches at VLS!

  • Mark Sciarrotta

    I’d echo the comments of Ms. North and Mr. Carpenter above. For people that want to influence positive change in their community and the world, a legal education is still an excellent investment and there is no better place to study law than Vermont Law School. Nationally, law school applications are way down and it’s not clear yet whether this is a cyclical phenomenon or the ‘new normal.’ But, in this uncertainty, Vermont Law School, under Dean Mihaly’s leadership is doing the right things—cutting costs, streamlining processes, and looking for innovative partnerships and solutions—all for the right reasons, and doing them transparently. There’s no doubt that VLS will not only survive the downturn but come out ahead of its competition afterwards. Go Swans!

  • This story and some of its comments are a little disheartening. As a recent graduate of VLS, I know it’s a great institution that’s not going anywhere and feel it my duty to let you know why.

    VLS isn’t going anywhere because: (1) VLS’s promotion of environmental and public service careers is an important and admirable purpose which also leaves it uniquely suited to thrive in the face of the law school bubble; (2) the federal government still has its foot on the gas pedal for incentivizing careers in public service; and (3) the state’s compelling policy goal of educating its citizenry will keep applications coming to VLS regardless of how hard it is to find the $70-100,000 salary that was once common for a law school graduate.

    1) VLS’s promotion of environmental and public service careers is an important and admirable purpose which also leaves it uniquely suited to survive in face of the law school bubble.

    Truth of the matter is that the “Law School Bubble” burst about 2 years ago and it’s ripples are still sorting themselves out. That’ll pass in due time. The landscape of the legal profession is changing; what used to be jobs for entry level graduates are now tasks completed by cheap software or paralegals. Employment of recent legal grads is dismal throughout the country. However, this situation is somewhat less common at VLS because a lot of their students see the legal profession circling the drain and are uniquely positioned by their environmental background to enter fields beyond the law where their JDs are seen as an asset. VLS is specially positioned to ride out this storm (in spite of their lack of a “mothership”) because a large number of their students plan to enter public interest law- a field in which the federal government recently chose to eliminate the moral hazard typically associated with tremendous education debt.

    2)The federal government still has its foot on the gas pedal for incentivizing careers in public service.

    A few years ago, faced with the demise of the housing bubble and at the cusp of a bursting education bubble, the federal government began directly lending to students for higher education. This allowed them to offer unique loan repayment plans which institutions related to the public interest draw generous benefits from. For example, the average JD/MELP dual degree candidate at VLS who takes out the maximum allowable amount of federal direct loans for living expenses and tuition will finish school just shy of $250,000 in debt (not counting undergrad). The federal government offers a pay-as-you earn income based repayment plan that allows for forgiveness of a student’s federal loans after 20 years of timely payments, or 10 years of timely payments if working in the public service field (gov’t/501(c)(3)). These pay-as-you-earn plans limit the amount of income a student has to pay to 15% of their discretionary income. For an individual who makes roughly $40,000 annually after graduation, that’s roughly $300 a month (locality/circumstance dependent). Without such generous repayment plans/loan forgiveness, those monthly payments would be $3,000-$4,000.

    Furthermore, after 20 years of timely loan payments, or 10 years of timely payments plus a career in public service (gov’t/any 501(c)(3)–> not necessarily related to a legal degree) the remaining principal and accumulated interest is forgiven by the federal government. In some cases, this amount is more than $500,000 after interest has compounded.

    3. The state’s compelling policy goal of educating its citizenry will keep applications coming to VLS regardless of the dismal employment statistics in the rest of the legal field.

    Is this experiment in social engineering a great investment for the American people? I believe so, but in truth only time will tell. On one hand, its a high speed elevator up the ladder of social mobility for those whose means would not have previously afforded them such a stellar education. On the other hand, someone who opts to remain in their dead end minimum wage job because they’re not informed about new student loan repayment options has to bear the burden of the federal government’s loan forgiveness through taxes on their paycheck. Is this fair? Its hard to say. Such a policy definitely places on individuals the minimal burden of becoming informed. However, it also certainly furthers a compelling state interest in an educated citizenry. Higher education costs little to nothing in other parts of the world. Why should America limit opportunities in higher education to those whose parents can afford it?

    It may not serve the school’s interest to publicize such an opinion. After all, that which the federal government has giveth it may also taketh away if there’s enough “fiscal conservative” outcry. But I think it’s important to get such a message out because if even one person out there reads this and considers furthering their education in an attempt to lift themselves out of the stagnation of paycheck to paycheck living that is our lower middle-class, then it was worth writing.

    In conclusion, regardless of broader policy questions, VLS isn’t going anywhere because: (1) VLS’s promotion of environmental and public service careers is a unique and admirable purpose with an important place in society today; (2) the federal government still has its foot on the gas pedal for incentivizing careers in public service; and (3) the state’s compelling policy goal of educating its citizenry will keep applications coming to VLS- regardless of how hard it is to find the $60-80,000 yearly salary that was once common for a law school graduate.

  • John Lawrence

    I would like to mention that my initial comment was censored by the website administrator. It appears the comments here are mainly from shills of Vermont Law School trying to conduct damage control. Maybe there are a couple successful VLS grads, but the majority of people are unemployed and likely never get jobs from this school. My niece attended VLS and she can’t even get a paralegal position. This school needs to close down. I look forward to my comments being published. Thank you.

  • Christopher Cooper

    I fear that by talking only to school officials, VTdigger may be getting only 1/2 the story.

    Last year, I served as a 3L Senator on the VLS Student Bar Association. I was appointed to a special investigatory committee that, among other things, was charged with looking into recent tuition increases at the school, how they had been communicated to the students, and their impact on the school.

    What we discovered does not comport entirely with what you have been told. For instance, Pres Mihaly continues to imply that VLS enrollment declines are tied to the overall drop in applications seen throughout U.S. law schools. We found, in fact, that application rates at VLS had not diminished at all. Rather, even with more lenient admission criteria, fewer ADMITTED students are choosing to enroll.

    The question is why.

    You can read the full report at the link below. However, our investigation revealed that the genesis of the school’s income gap was a decision by the Board of Trustees in 2008 to increase tuition in order to shift more financial assistance from needs-based to merit-based aid in an attempt to game the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

    Ultimately, the Board’s strategy backfired, but not before it had reeked havoc on the school’s finances and saddled VLS grads with an enormous amount if debt.

    You can read the report here:

  • Christopher Cooper

    Re: Brian Buckley’s promotion of the federal “pay-as-you-go” loan repayment program.

    While this income-based repayment program ensures that your monthly loan repayments do not exceed a certain percentage of your income, the program:

    a) requires that you consolidate your loans — meaning you are prevented from paying down the principle on some loans (that may have higher interest rates) first and, in some cases means that you lose the LOWER interest rates on other loans.

    b) stretches your repayment out over such a long period that, in many cases, the monthly payments do not even cover the accrued interest on the loan (in other words, you get FURTHER behind…for the rest of your life. You’ll never be in a credit position to buy a house or make other long-term investments).

    c) you only qualify if your income stay below a certain level….so you have to choose to make yourself virtually impoverished for the rest of your life or potentially face an even GREATER amount of debt when you are forced to exit the program because you’ve taken a (slightly) more lucrative job.

    Student loans (especially law school loans) are a huge Ponzi scheme. Please know what you’re getting into.

  • Chris,

    I appreciate your work in the investigatory committee and I think what you’ve uncovered is very important. I my opinion, the school’s financial aid should be need based and it was a terrible decision to switch to a merit based system. Thank you for bringing it to the school’s attention.

    Also, in response to your points about IBR:

    It’s called pay-as-you-earn. Pay-as-you-go is a budgetary rule in Congress.

    a) Federal Direct Consolidation does not require you to consolidation all of your loans. You can pick and choose which ones you want to keep separate and not pay under IBR. Though, it does limit consolidation to FFEL and Federal Direct loans. Alternative educational loans issued by private banks (if your finances required more than stafford/perkins loans allowed before 2007) do not qualify.

    b) The debt will only weigh on your credit report for the 10 years of public service until your debt is extinguished; it does not last the rest of your life.

    c) There is no income cap. One pays 15% of their discretionary income no matter how high that income is.

    -I’m surprised you didn’t mention the REAL hole in my argument: what happens if a Republican administration decides to tighten the belt of fiscal conservatism and repeal the law? My best answer so far: Leave the country and start anew.

    I agree with you that Law School/higher education in general is a Ponzi scheme- a game we all play within our facade of civility. I mean, people can educate themselves on YouTube nowadays just as well as any school. IBR of student loans is just the federal government’s reaction to the housing bubble pop, grasping at a solution before the next (student debt) bubble bursts. Why not take advantage of it?

    How’s bar prep going? I choose Themis, strictly because I come from modest means and they offer the whole program for $1,000 if you plan to work in the public interest after school. Then, as I explored the program, I found out its actually really quite good. At least better than Barbri whose sleazy rep will charge you $3,500 unless you haggle with him, in which case he’ll lower it to $1,500. Scam artists.

  • Christopher Cooper


    Apologies for the “pay-as-you-go” / “pay-as-you-earn confusion (chalk it up to bar prep exhaustion).

    I think you are mixing apples and oranges when you combine some of the requirements of IBR (income-based repayment) and federal public service loan forgiveness (PSLF).

    Under IBR, you pay roughly 10% of your income for at least **25 years**, after which the remaining is forgiven. Under federal loan forgiveness, you can pay the IBR rate and have the balance forgiven in 10 years.

    …but there are a few (HUGE) catches.

    First,PSLF DOES require you to consolidate all qualifying loans — which, as you have mentioned, does not include private loans, which you are stuck paying period. This consolidation is what I was referring to in my previous post.

    Second, PSLF requires (a) you work continuously in public service for 10 years. If you are not otherwise employed in public service during any month in which you made a payment, you lose eligibility for the program entirely (even if the unemployment comes in your 9th year of payments), which bring me to…(b) you must make timely monthly payments for the entire 10 years. If you should be late even ONE time, you lose your eligibility; and, finally, (c) the IBR payments that you would be paying over the course of these 10 years are still income-contingent. Should you do well and move up within the non-profit and are offered a raise, you may have to turn it down or risk your IBR payment increasing to, say, 15% (which might wipe out your raise and then some). In other words, you are stuck at a lower income level for the next 10 yrs…which bring me to…

    Third, even if you manage to maintain eligibility for PSLF and keep your IBR payments sufficiently low, once your loan is forgiven, you now have a salary history that may limit your earning potential for years thereafter. It’s not like, if you have been stuck at a job paying $55,000 per year for the last decade, you will suddenly be able to jump into the $100k job market. Unfortunately, that isn’t how it works. It might take you another 10 years, creeping up the income latter to get there. Anyone considering PSLF needs to consider this opportunity cost when calculating whether the program is going to serve you well in the long run.

    And…as you have noted, all of this assumes that these programs will survive for the next 10-25 years, through the inevitable student loan bubble burst.

    You have to ask yourself…am I feeling lucky today? 😉

    (P.S. bar prep is like Chinese water torture. I’d rather impale myself on something rusty than go through this again.)

  • John Smith

    A few quick observations:

    — the job statistic quoted (75%) is a gross exaggeration — using VLS’s own numbers (which I would not trust anyway), fewer than 50% (93 of 206) of the 2012 graduates got a full-time, non-temp lawyer job

    — at best, only a few recent VLS grads (fewer than 10 out of 200 per class) can get a job that pays enough to support the cost of attendance, which, per the VLS website, is more than $200k

    — it is UNLIKELY that this school will be around much longer — whatever value the degree has, will be worth less after the school closes; for this reason, the school and alumni will of course talk it up; do not trust it/them

  • Kenneth Trainer

    — the job statistic quoted (75%) is a gross exaggeration — using VLS’s own numbers (which I would not trust anyway), fewer than 50% (93 of 206) of the 2012 graduates got a full-time, non-temp lawyer job

    — at best, only a few recent VLS grads (fewer than 10 out of 200 per class) can get a job that pays enough to support the cost of attendance, which, per the VLS website, is more than $200k

    — it is UNLIKELY that this school will be around much longer — whatever value the degree has, will be worth less after the school closes; for this reason, the school and alumni will of course talk it up; do not trust it/them

  • John Lawrence

    I read on one of the law school scam blogs that VLS admitted a whopping 83% of its applicants. All I can say is WOW! That should go a long way toward increasing the school’s rankings. The bottom line is VLS charges too much money for the school’s reputation and the employments prospects for graduates. VLS can talk until it’s blue in the face about how its Environmental Program is #1 in the nation, but the truth is (1) no big firms care about specialty rankings; and (2) environmental law is a very small practice area. Even if you do manage to get a job in the environmental law area, it’s likely to be representing some big oil company in order to pay for the outrageous tuition costs here. the school needs to reduce tuition, continue to reduce enrollment to levels that are on par with demand, and reduce overpaid faculty member salaries. Based on the school’s diminishing reputation and selectivity, I would think long and hard about attending this school. You will very likely be disappointed in your job prospects.

    • Donald Kreis

      This criticism is nothing but ad hominem baloney. Since there is no “John Lawrence” listed among Vermont’s active or inactive attorneys, he certainly isn’t in a position to opine knowledgeably about the marketplace for attorneys in Vermont. In these circumstances, perhaps he could explain how he knows that “no big firms care about specialty rankings.”

      More to the point, though, as someone who taught at VLS from 2008 to 2012 (and who still teaches at VLS through its distance learning program) I can testify that few if any VLS students aspire to working at the big firms. And the employers that interest VLS students do indeed care that VLS is the nation’s top-ranked school for environmental law.

      Finally, Mr. Lawrence undermines his argument by asserting that “even if you do manage to get a job in the environmental law area, it’s likely to be representing some big oil company in order to pay for the outrageous tuition costs.” Actually, it’s a GOOD thing, for the environment and the public interest generally, when VLS students take their training and experience in environmental law and use it inside profit-maximizing firms, whether oil companies or otherwise. Lots of VLS students arrive thinking that the best way to practice environmental law is to find some mythical white-hat nonprofit that will pay them a great salary to “speak for the trees” in the manner of the Lorax (of Dr. Seuss fame). Hopefully they leave with the understanding that in a market economy, the work of keeping planet earth inhabitable over the long haul will be done in no small part by corporate entities — who will need good lawyers to help them acquire the right incentives and, ultimately, do the right thing.

  • Fred Woogmaster

    “Pro se” means appearing for oneself before a court.

    “any client who appoints him/her self as his/her own lawyer is a fool”. anonymous

    The legal profession has been very successful in elevating its members to “indispensable” status. When essential services are provided within the “profit model” those with means benefit, those without means are adversely affected!

    Increased tuition? Increased legal fees.
    Increased legal fees? Justice skewed, The People screwed.

    Separating those lawyers genuinely committed to service and to the attainment of equal justice (and there are some) from the legal institution, becomes more and more difficult. It is those billable hours, after all, that pay off those burdensome loans – until a “cash cow” comes along.

    The power of the legal profession (lawyers) in our society is immense. That power is a contributing factor in the disintegration of the democratic process and in the subversion of the will of We The People.

    Law schools, in general, contribute to the problem while stifling systemic reform. VLC, its innovative programs notwithstanding, is a law school, is it not?.

  • Excellent Resource for anyone thinking about the above-mentioned IBR/Public Service Loan Forgiveness:

    (Qualifying payments need not be consecutive)

  • Donald Kreis

    This conversation has been bothering me and so I am reluctantly leaping into the fray to defend my former employer. I worked as the associate director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment (IEE) at Vermont Law School from 2008 to 2012. Full disclosure: I remain affiliated with VLS, where my title is Senior Energy Law Fellow. I teach courses in the school’s excellent Distance Learning program.

    Chris Cooper, who served as a fellow at the IEE during his time at VLS and is thus a former colleague, has performed a valuable service by obtaining and then analyzing the data about tuition, financial aid and admissions at VLS over the past several years. But he completely undermines the credibility of his analysis by committing precisely the same wrong he accuses President and Dean Mihaly of committing: Implying things that are not true.

    I refer specifically to the final sentences of Mr. Cooper’s report, which comprise the last of his three recommendations: “The [VLS] Administration should ensure that all information communicated to students regarding tuition increases is accurate and should develop a mechanism for holding accountable individuals who provide false or misleading information.”

    Vermont Law School has not provided any false or misleading information. To the contrary, the fact that Mr. Cooper (and his fellow students) had such ready access to the data he analyzes testifies to how accountable and transparent this institution has been. VLS is a private institution that has had to make some tough strategic decisions over the past few years, in the face of an unfavorable paradigm shift. A lesser non-governmental organization would have simply circled the wagons. Mr. Cooper and other can criticize all they want the strategic decision VLS made in 2008 to change the way it meets its revenue requirement in a manner calculated to attract more high-achieving students – but they cannot claim that VLS was anything but transparent about it.

    Furthermore, the criticism of this decision on the merits is unpersuasive. What Mr. Cooper characterizes as “gaming” the U.S. News and World Report law school rankings can also be described as a rational response to the incentives these rankings create in the marketplace. Had VLS been oblivious to the rankings and their influence, Mr. Cooper and other disgruntled students would surely have complained that VLS was recklessly oblivious to market forces. Moreover, although VLS has not gained ground in the rankings, the fact remains that had VLS done nothing it would likely have lost ground as other law schools adjusted their admissions and financial aid policies in light of the pernicious influence of U.S. News and World Report.

    Something is indeed wrong here, but VLS is not the villain. There are plenty of unmet legal needs out there and, yet, it has become difficult if not impossible for most graduating law students to recoup the substantial investment required to obtain a legal education. In my opinion, this is a function of a meta-trend in the economy – the widening gulf between the wealthy and the poor. The stark reality is that graduate education followed by entry into one of the learned professions – particularly law and medicine – is no longer a sure bet on a comfortable middle class existence. As bad as unmet legal needs are, the lack of access to quality healthcare is an even worse societal problem.

    Finally, those who demand transparency should be transparent. In other words, since Mr. Cooper is so critical of the way in which VLS has chosen to set its prices and allocate its revenue, he should disclose the extent to which he personally has benefited from and/or been harmed by these practices in the course of his own career as a fellow and student at VLS.

    • Christopher Cooper

      I understand Don Kries’s desire to defend his colleagues and, if read carefully, one can see that I have anticipated all of the objections he raises.

      1. Honest Information. As the report indicates, the 2010 tuition increase was announced to students through an email sent by then-President Shields. In that email, Pres. Shields made two statements that were inaccurate. The first (and most obvious) is that the 4% tuition increase tracked the rate of inflation. In fact, inflation (measured by the consumer price index) had not been above 3% since before the great recession in 2007. Second, he suggested that the tuition increase was the smallest that the school could reasonably charge and maintain its fiscal status. In fact, at that time, there was no FISCAL justification for the increase at all (as most of page 7 indicates). The increase was deemed necessary ONLY to support the strategy of shifting more funds to merit-based aid. Furthermore, the recommendation included in this report came on the heals of 5 other reports, including ones that documented inaccurate information reported to students concerning increases in student health insurance premiums as well as the financing of the new multi-million fitness facility through student fees. The tuition issue was only one in a string of false communications to students that the SBA Investigatory Committee uncovered.

      2. The “We Were Only Following Others” Argument – If you read closely, it is not ME who characterizes the strategy of raising tuition for all only to direct greater amounts of merit-based aid to the top few as “gaming” the U.S. News ranking. I am, in fact, citing Indiana University Law Professor Jeffrey Stake, who undertook a systematic analysis of this (and other “gaming” strategies) by law schools in a 2006 Indiana Law Journal. Even so, I acknowledge that VLS was only following the trend of others who were attempting to do the same thing. My point is…it failed. Utterly. It did not increase VLS’s overall ranking and instead created an income gap and necessitated an acceptance rate of 83% for the latest in-coming class, reflecting just how LESS competitive VLS has become. Whatever the justification was then, surely those with more forethought (and there was a minority on the Board at the time) could understand how this strategy gouges students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in order to provide HUGE discounts to those in the best position to pay back student loans. The fact that everyone was doing it is not an excuse for letting this ill-devised strategy continue.

      3. Transparency. For 5 of my 6 semesters at VLS, I received a full tuition waiver in exchange for working as a fellow at the Institute for Energy & the Environment. Four of those 5 represented the school’s mandatory “matching-funds” for a $500,000 grant-for-service contract from the DOE to study implementation of smart grid pilot programs. This information means two things: (1) Personally, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I managed to get through VLS with about $50k in student loan debt. Comparatively, I’m golden. (2) Lest anyone be confused…MY FELLOWSHIP WAS NOT MERIT-BASED AID. I did not get a merit-based scholarship, which comes in the form of discounted tuition to those with high LSAT scores and GPA’s. I got a fellowship. I had to WORK an average of 20 hours a week (including through both summers) in exchange. That work resulted in two books, two white papers and multiple published journal articles as well as the school’s fulfillment of its contract obligations to the DOE. (Considering that I was charging $300 per hour as an expert energy policy consultant prior to coming to law school, I’d say VLS got me pretty cheap.) Still…I’m all for full disclosure.

      You may want to note that even THIS is covered in my report (although without personal reference). I note, for example, that the reason that the school avoided a budget gap that would have occurred in FY2009 was, in part, because it was able to fill it by skimming some profit off of fee-for-service contracts like mine. (In fact, during our interview with VP of Finance Lorraine Atwood, she indicated that it was precisely THIS mechanism the school was relying on to decrease the inevitable budget crunch to come. Good luck with that.)

  • Donald Kreis

    I understand that Mr. Cooper believes that the admissions and pricing strategy that VLS adopted in 2008, and continued thereafter, is inconsistent with his notion of social equity and perhaps that of others as well. But surely he cannot seriously contend that a different strategy would have caused VLS to become a more highly ranked law school or otherwise be more successful than it has proven to be. If he thinks so, he should offer up a plausible scenario for how that could have worked out.

    Further, Mr. Cooper’s defense of his allegation that VLS has essentially been lying to its students is unpersuasive at best. Most of this claim seems to coalesce around the fact that former President and Dean Jeff Shields declared that a 4 percent tuition increase “track[ed]” the inflation rate at a time when the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was well below four percent. But the CPI was, and is, no secret — and surely anyone smart enough to matriculate at a law school is savvy enough to test sales puffery against reality. Moreover, absent the advent of serious operational efficiency measures (like distance learning), education is an extremely labor-intensive enterprise whose costs are almost inevitably going to rise more quickly than the overall inflation rate in the economy.

    Mr. Cooper’s other claim of falsehood has to do with whether there was “fiscal justification” for certain tuition increases. This was, and is, a matter of opinion. The fact-opinion distinction is key to understanding the tort of defamation and thus is part of the first-year torts syllabus at every accredited law school in the U.S. But people who arrive at law school with a highly refined notion of what they bring to the table by virtue of their previous experience don’t always pay attention in first-year classes.

    Finally, Mr. Cooper refers to a “string” of other “false communications to students that the SBA Investigatory Committee uncovered” but he does not specify what they were. In these circumstances, these claims cannot be taken seriously.

    In an ideal world, VLS would attract high-caliber students who bring great backgrounds with them — the sort of backgrounds, for example, that might have allowed them to bill their services out at $300/hour prior to law school. To their preexisting expertise VLS would, in exchange for a reasonable amount of tuition and good effort, add certain things — like a measure of discernment about how to take principled public stands in a civilized way without making reckless allegations about good people. But, as the actual facts set forth in Mr. Cooper’s report amply demonstrate, VLS does not function in an ideal world. VLS is, nevertheless, still a pretty idealistic place — and Mr. Cooper is simply wrong when he claims otherwise.

    • Christopher Cooper

      Prof. Kreis is usually much better at preventing his passion from clouding his argument. Here, he constructs a classic series of straw-people, and begs adoration for having blown them down.

      1. The Strategy. My contention was never that a better strategy for maintain VLS’s competitiveness would have been to keep rates low (though I think someone could probably make a pretty strong case for that. My statement was that strategy that VLS *DID* choose – to massively increase tuition rates in order to entice “better” students – failed miserably and should be abandoned. The burden in on those who would continue it, given its failure and the long-term affect on student debt (something that will cripple our economy for decades, if not addressed).

      2. “Inaccuracies” – Prof. Kreis’s argument appears to be NOT that VLS gave the students true information, but rather that they gave students FALSE information that the students could easily verify as false. His assumption that this excuses the school is undermined by the American Bar Association itself, which (as the report indicates) adopted new rules in late 2012 providing sanctions for law schools that do not provide accurate consumer information to students. These sanctions apply based on the (false) information provided, regardless of the ease with which students can determine that they are false. The ABA must have assumed (fairly reasonably) that many students are too busy in their classes to verify every (false) dot and tittle of an administrator’s statements. Rather, they assume that most students will take the school at its word.

      3. “Defamation” – Another strawperson. Note that my report did not make the affirmative claim that the school had “lied.” Rather, the report included the affirmative recommendation that a process be put in place to ensure that the information provided to students is accurate and that those who provide inaccurate information are in some manner held accountable. I know of few other professions where employees may provide customers with inaccurate information and avoid ANY accountability from their bosses. As for the other inaccuracies to which I referred…all of the reports of the SBA Investigatory Committee are publicly available. If Prof. Kreis were following his own advice, the fact that my claims can be so easily verified (or not) should excuse me from having to repeat the text of each of these reports here.

      Finally, Prof. Kreis performs another contradiction by sinking to the same thinly-veiled ad hominems that he derides others for (see above). He implies both that my pre-existing expertise must have blinded me to the law of defamation (which I must have ignored in my first-year torts class) AND that my pre-existing expertise gives the school grounds for expecting my unconditional support. While his barb COULD provide me the opportunity to criticize the quality of my 1L torts class (which never GOT to defamation), I will refrain and only note that when your opponent must resort to ad hominem, it is a sure sign he is losing the substance of the argument.

      • Donald Kreis

        Fair enough . . . I concede that those who condemn others for their sly innuendo should eschew the tactic themselves.

        In that spirit: Wouldn’t it be more constructive if all of us — me, my former colleague Chris Cooper, everyone who is part of the VLS community, and perhaps the larger world of people who care about the law in Vermont and people who care about environmental law and policy (loosely defined) — agreed that it is in our best interests to see VLS continue to survive and thrive?

        Assuming it is, then what’s the point of continuing to flog the school’s now-retired former dean for having justified a tuition increase five years ago with a comment that may have been misleading? That’s particularly so given that his statement was sent to current students as distinct from prospective ones (i.e., the folks who might be shopping for law schools based on price). Frankly, who cares what the dean says about why the school is increasing the tuition? The number speaks for itself. In the context of the ABA rule Mr. Cooper cites (assuming a rule enacted last year could be enforced against VLS ex post facto), I think the information in question was not sufficiently material to be sanctionable.

        My gripe with Chris Cooper, and lots of other law students of his generation whom I have encountered, is that they want to have it both ways. They want their law school to treat them like customers — but they also want VLS to be transparent and accountable and to give them a voice in the school’s governance. If the latter paradigm is the one VLS students and alumni ultimately desire, then I think they have a moral responsibility to support the school rather than to work at undermining its reputation and success.

        In that regard, I think VLS deserves a lot of credit, particularly from its students and alumni, for striving to confront the pressing need for systemic change. If all you read is what Chris Cooper has said publicly about VLS, you would think this is a school that is doing nothing but maintaining its identity as an old-fashioned law school and trying to persist by gaming the U.S. News and World Report rankings. To the contrary, by embracing strategies like distance learning and accelerated JD programs, by extending legal education into realms beyond the traditional ‘lawyer’ career track, and by down-sizing prudently (rather than by pretending that the current market conditions are an aberration), VLS is proving itself a dynamic and principled institution.

        This is important for precisely the reason Chris Cooper identifies: We absolutely have to do something about the crippling student debt we are imposing on an entire generation of Americans. One of these days, we might just figure out that the indentured servitude that arises out of the non-dischargeability of student debt is inconsistent with the 13th Amendment. Meantime, we need people who are learned in the law. I am confident that VLS is part of the solution to this public policy crisis and if Chris Cooper thinks otherwise I am sorry he left South Royalton in such a disgruntled state of mind.

        • Christopher Cooper

          First, I have not left South Royalton. 😉

          Second, Prof. Kries now collapses his argument to “can’t we all just forget the past and focus on the fix?”

          This is a convenient way to divert from the fact that HE is the one who “took issue” with one recommendation from the conclusion of my report (see above). He demanded that I justify (publicly) my suggestion that students receive accurate information about tuition increases and then berates ME for “flogging the school’s now-retired former Dean” when I effectively answer his objections.

          He builds more strawpeople by insinuating that I think VLS is (or was) in violation of the ABA’s new rules on consumer information. (He throws in a jab about my knowledge of ex post facto laws to continue his ad hominem attack on my legal understanding…never once, apparently, savoring the irony of suggesting that someone who graduated cum laude from VLS may be legally inept.)

          I never wrote that VLS is (or was) in violation of ABA’s rule, nor do I think that the case. Rather, a careful reader would understand that I was defending the VALUE of making school’s accountable for providing accurate consumer information, even if the accuracy can easily be discovered through a bit of research. Like me, the ABA seems to believe that law students have better things to do than chase down the accuracy of every statement from their school. They SHOULD be able to take for granted that the information (especially from people teaching LAW) is completely accurate. Not 80%. not 90%. Completely.

          Finally, Prof. Kries continues to imply that my reporting on these issues is somehow a cry that VLS serves no good purpose in addressing the student debt crisis. This is rich, considering that in my 3L year I (who am not personally as impacted by this crisis), nevertheless, waded through financial documents, archived Student Bar Association minutes and reams of consumer data solely for the purpose of discovering why VLS’s tuition was so high even while the school was suffering a (growing) deficit.

          Believe me. I was surprised by the findings. Frankly, I was expecting to uncover some sort of graft or above-average faculty salaries. Instead, what I found was a well-intended, but poorly thought-through strategy of artificially inflating tuition on those least able to pay massive student debt in order to discount tuition for a select few who are already better positioned to pay student loans. It was a kind of reverse-Robin Hood scheme that utterly failed in its purpose – to make VLS more competitive.

          But I did not stop at merely uncovering these fact (a process Prof. Kries implied above that I was OBLIGATED to do as a consumer). I also made recommendations for repairing this damage. I have called on the school to end this strategy and return to a financial aid model that provides more needs-based assistance. I petitioned strongly and loudly (despite the derision) for the Board to freeze or even lower tuition rates. Once I have completed the bar and have found gainful employment, I will consider serving in some capacity in an effort to continue these efforts.

          How, exactly, does this make me part of the problem rather than the solution.

          Maybe Prof. Kries is particularly cantankerous today (to play, as he has, the “age card”). But his ire is clouding his judgement. If he really desires progress, he should join in my efforts and direct his ire elsewhere.

          P.S. On a side-note, Prof. Kreis points to VLS’s accelerated J.D. program as an example of the school’s commitment to lowering tuition costs. But, as my whole report demonstrates, the problem is not lower tuition. It is WHO GETS IT. The ABA requires 87 credits to obtain a J.D., regardless if one does it in two or three years. Under VLS’s new program, accelerated students are charged (much) less per-credit than ‘regular’ (3-year) students. You have to ask yourself WHY, if the cost of the actual education (teaching, etc.) should be the same (same amount of classes).

          While you are pondering that, consider this. The only students who qualify for the accelerated JD program are those with high LSAT/GPA scores that indicate that they could handle the intensive course load. In other words, yes, the program reduces tuition costs. But it does so by offering a discounted per-credit rate that is made up for by the 3-year students who are charged a higher per-credit rate. Add to this that the accelerated students get out into the world, earning wages to pay down their (smaller) debt a year faster than their cohorts, and the inequity couldn’t be more clear. It is an incipient, if well-intended, paradigm to legal education that, I fear, will lead to VLS’s downfall. (And THAT is why I fight against it.)

    • Christopher Cooper

      On a personal level, I will also merely ask where in any of my postings here have I failed to act “in a civilized way” or made “reckless” accusations? I think the fact that I scrupulously researched these issues, including interviewing top members of the VLS Administration prior to issuing a balanced report providing reasonable recommendations attests otherwise. But, again, Prof. Kreis seems oblivious to his own standards regarding “defamation”.

  • Stephanie Kaplan

    In 1979, tuition was $3,900. That would be $13,226 in today’s dollars. Back then the place was pretty funky and we didn’t have a gym or any other amenities, but then again we had much more manageable debt when we graduated and it was more possible to do public interest work.