Streamlining the Process
Since he took the helm as president of Westfield State University in 2015, Ramon Torrecilha has talked often, and consistently, about a changing dynamic in higher education and especially at public institutions.
In this environment, he has said to BusinessWest and a wide range of other media outlets and audiences of various types, public schools must be vigilant in their efforts to make a college education more affordable, more value-laden, and better able to help students succeed in the field they’ve chosen.
And, he has argued, one of the best ways to accomplish these ends is through partnerships with other colleges and universities, especially other public schools.
All these sentiments — not to mention the school’s new operating philosophy — are reflected in WSU’s latest partnership initiative, one with the University of Massachusetts School of Law, or UMass Law, as it’s called, the only public law school in the Commonwealth.
It’s called the ‘3+3 law program,’ and UMass Law has created several such initiatives with other public institutions in the state, including UMass Dartmouth, UMass Boston, UMass Lowell, Fitchburg State, Worcester State, and the Mass. College of Liberal Arts in North Adams.
Those two numbers in the name of the program get right to the heart of the matter. They refer to the number of years a participant is in school. Add them up, and one gets six, which is exactly one less than it traditionally takes someone to earn a bachelor’s degree and then a law degree, otherwise known as a juris doctor or JD.
“And that one year is very significant,” said Torrecilha, adding that, by shaving two semesters off the process, individuals and their families can save perhaps tens of thousands of dollars — and degree recipients can get on with their careers sooner.
At a time when higher education in general, and public higher education especially, happens to be under scrutiny, I think partnerships, not only with UMass Law School but also our community college partners underscores and reaffirms our commitment to the citizens of the Commonwealth.”
And that career may not necessarily be in the law, said Torrecilha, adding that students in majors not traditionally associated with law — everything from English to gender studies — may well find the program worthwhile because of what a law-school education brings — everything from a focus on critical thinking to experience with forging and then presenting arguments to practice in writing.
“This program will target not only students in political science or philosophy or criminal justice,” he said, listing majors that traditionally feed students to law schools. “It will be available to students in disciplines that you don’t usually think of when you think of a law degree.”
Dr. Emily Todd, chair of the WSU English Department, agreed.
“People generally don’t think about English majors going on to get a law degree, but it’s actually a great preparation for law school,” she explained. “We see the strength of our program as setting people up to be successful; English majors develop skills as writers, good researchers, and excellent close readers, and that helps them to be persuasive writers and to develop their skills in synthesis and analysis.
“I was recently speaking with a first-year student before this program was announced,” she went on. “I always ask students what they want to do, and she said, ‘I’m thinking about law — I really love to think about words and analyze them closely.’”
Here’s how the program works. Following the completion of 90 credits at Westfield State, enrolled students begin their first year at UMass Law. Once the first 30 credits are completed there, students will obtain their bachelor’s degree from WSU. Those 30 credits will dually serve as the first-year requisite toward their law degree from UMass Law.
Elaborating, Torrecilha said those 30 credits earned during that first year at UMass Law will effectively serve as the elective courses that students in any degree program are required to take. They will come in what would be the fourth year of one’s progression toward a bachelor’s degree, rather than in the first two or three, which is traditionally the case.
Torrecilha said the 3+3 program was conceived with a number of goals in mind, including a desire to stimulate more interest in a law degree at a time when overall enrollment has been declining at all the most elite schools — although the needle has started pointing back up at some institutions. And also to perhaps provide a boost for UMass Law, which was launched in 2010 after the private law school Southern New England School of Law offered to donate real estate, facilities, technology, and library assets to UMass Dartmouth for the purpose of creating a public law program in the Commonwealth.
The UMass board of trustees approved the plan in late 2009, and the Commonwealth’s Board of Higher Education did the same a few months later. The school’s first class matriculated in 2010.
But the overriding goals are to streamline the process of getting both degrees and making it more cost-effective. Those are the terms one hears most often in association with the initiative.
If all goes well, Torrecilha said, students may be entered in the program by the fall of 2019. He said there are no goals for enrollment at this time, and he’s not exactly sure what to expect. But he has seen a good deal of interest in the program since it was announced several weeks ago.
“We’re educating the community as we go, and we’ve been talking to advisors,” he noted. “There are a lot of students here on the campus who are asking about it already; I’m hoping that that the first cohort will have between 20 and 30 students.”
Meanwhile, the school will continue to look for more ways to partner with other institutions, including those in the UMass system and the region’s community colleges, to create more ways to streamline the process of earning degrees and making them more cost-effective, said Torrecilha.
“At a time when higher education in general, and public higher education especially, happens to be under scrutiny, I think partnerships — not only with UMass Law School, but also our community-college partners — underscore and reaffirm our commitment to the citizens of the Commonwealth,” he told BusinessWest. “I think it also sets an example of how public institutions can come together for the public good.”
— George O’Brien