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Anatomy of a Law School Collapse

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What if you made a law school and no one showed up?

That may well be the reality facing Vermont Law School this Fall. While many schools are facing a shortfall of applicants, Vermont has been forced to take the unique step of downsizing its staff. [vnews, sorry about the paywall] The school gave buyouts to ten of its staff, and laid off another two. Not a particularly large ax to fall on the administrative heads, but the school has announced that professors will be next. Professors would get to keep their titles, but would effectively become adjuncts. We don't know how much they currently make at Vermont, or what the pay would be for the new part-time professors, but odds are they'd see their salaries drop from around $100,000 to $30-40,000, and that's if they're able to get a 2/2 workload. Professors with just one class per semester could be looking at half that, and say goodbye to health insurance, summer research stipends, and paid research assistants.

So just what happened?

The lack of a legal industry in Vermont is what happened.

Vermont Law School is the only school to send 5% or more of its class to the state, yet last year only 16.7% of Vermont grads found work within Vermont. With only 48.3% of the class finding long term, full time jobs requiring bar passage, and 29.3% ending up unemployed or under-employed, few students are willing to shell out the $43,500 a year it costs to attend Vermont.

Last year, Vermont awarded 175 JDs, and enrolled 154. That's a pretty significant drop, considering that Vermont is not a school that draws a large number of transfers. 1Ls made up only 27.2% of the class. And as the mathletes know, when a school is expanding, 1Ls make up more than 33% of the class, and when it's contracting they make up less. 27.2% is considerably less.

Looking back 3 years ago, Vermont awarded 173 JDs and took in 190 new 1Ls. The new 1L class was 35.3% of the school. That's what a growth year looks like.

But the problems for Vermont extend beyond just a decrease in new students. Vermont is also taking in less money per student. Yes, like every law school, Vermont has hiked its tuition, going from $38,800 to $43,500 over the last 3 years, but unlike many other schools, this hike in tuition has been more than offset by a significant increase in scholarships.

Here are the scholarship stats from 3 years ago:

Students receiving any award: 62.9%

Awards of less than half tuition: 58.4%

Awards of half to full tuition: 4.0%

Full tuition: 0.5%

Median award amount: $7,0000

And here's the numbers for last year:

Students receiving any award: 66.6%

Awards of less than half tuition: 42.0%

Awards of half to full tuition: 21.3%

Full tuition: 3.3%

Median award amount: $15,675

Those full tuition awards are like losing another 2.8% of your revenues, and the increase in half-to-full awards are like losing another 10% (somewhat offset by fewer less-than-half awards). So rather than dropping from 190 new 1Ls to 154, it's more like a drop from 190 to 130. And Vermont requires only a 2.5 GPA to maintain scholarships; we don't know what their curve is, but we're guessing they don't have a particularly high scholarship attrition rate. To make up for that shortfall in tuition, Vermont would have to sack about 10-15 professors, roughly 15-20% of its full time faculty.

In its statement announcing the staff cuts, Vermont stated it was expecting between 150 and 170 new 1Ls to start this Fall, a prediction that tells us two things. First, the large range means they really have no idea what the numbers will be and are fully at the whim of the applicant market, and second, that given the unprecedented low applications we're seeing this year, even the low projection of 150 is optimistic.

While this looks a lot like what the reform crowd wants, smaller class sizes, reduced (average) tuition, and adjunct faculty taking on more of the workload, the problem for Vermont is that they're not likely to make their reforms fast or big enough. It will try to minimize the harm to its professors, laying off as few as highly optimistic projections will allow, which will ultimately dig the school into a deeper hole rather than creating a new, stable law school model.

And Vermont faces one more tiny problem as it switches some of its full-time faculty to part-time positions. They keep their titles, but if they take any other jobs they become "additional teaching resources" under ABA Standard 402 for purposes of calculating the school's faculty:student ratio, and those additional resources can only make up 20% of your faculty. Given that Vermont already has, as most schools do, a large number of adjuncts, as well as deans and librarians with teaching duties, Vermont might be facing some serious problems on the accreditation end.

Why are we still at this law school?

Hope you are well.

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