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A Fast-Track To Law School

With the high costs of tuition, many students with an associate’s degree can’t afford to go on for their bachelor’s.  So in 2011, when one non-profit college in Salem began offering students their third year of college free, some considered the deal a godsend. If the students succeed, they can combine their senior year with the first year at the Massachusetts School of Law.  But that’s not free.  So if students take out loans they can’t pay back with future earnings, some experts question if the deal is more sour than sweet.

At the American College of History and Legal Studies, or ACHLS, about 15 students sit around a conference room table discussing constitutional law.

The students debate everything from the occupy movement to animal rights.

ACHLS is called a completion college because it offers only the junior and senior year of undergraduate school. And it offers only one degree: a bachelor’s in history and legal studies.

The college classrooms are squeezed into an office building right off Interstate 93.

The concrete-paved campus — if you can call it that — is devoid of fancy dorms, climbing gyms and gourmet cafeterias.

Plenty of students say they’d easily sacrifice those perks for a couple of semesters without tuition.

After the free, junior year, they can skip their senior year if they get accepted to the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover.

Lawrence Velvel is the school’s dean.  He says the law school trustees subsidize the completion college for under half a million dollars a year.  Velvel says ACHLS is a good investment because most of the students do go on to the Mass School of Law, or MSL.

Even though we are not charging tuition for the history college, we do OK, because in law school, they pay tuition and it more than compensates for the money we are putting into the history college. That’s true even though MSL’s tuition is only 45 percent of the general average in New England.

Most Boston-area law schools charge more than 40 thousand dollars a year — which is especially alarming at a time when law school graduates are seeing the lowest rates of employment since 1994.

The Massachusetts School of Law is not accredited by the American Bar Association. And its admission process does not require LSAT scores.

We’re not Harvard, B.U. or B.C. and we don’t wish to be. We are what is called an opportunity school. Our people come from less affluent classes. So we have a whole stratum of people who are very appreciative they are given a chance to become a lawyer.

But non-profit groups like Law School Transparency say that applicants need to know much more about the value of their legal education.

Kyle McEntee is the organization’s director.

He says he champions the opportunity for students with associate’s degrees to advance their critical thinking about history — without plunking down hefty fees.

But he’s less enthusiastic about the college’s ties to the law school.  He says prospective students should ask:

How many graduates end up in legal jobs, or more precisely, legal jobs that put you on a good career trajectory? And with an entry-level marketplace that’s saturated, it’s extremely difficult for graduates of any law school to compete. It’s especially difficult at the schools that are not accredited by the American Bar Association.

Velvel insists that MSL students get a rigorous education. Eighty-five percent who take the Bar pass it.

Our first-time passage rate fluctuates between 60 and 70 percen t. 

Sheryl: How many graduates are employed full-time in legal jobs? How many are unemployed or maybe underemployed?

Velvel: I have no idea. We have never collected statistics on any of that, so we don’t have any notion. 

One recent evening at the American College of History & Legal Studies, Lieren McElroy of Exeter reviews her notes before class.  The 23-year old community college graduate is a paralegal for a New Hampshire state prosecutor.  It’s her dream to become one some day.

I can safely say I would be making average, about average, no more than a hundred thousand a year. But I don’t need to be rich as an attorney. I want to be able to help people who don’t have a voice.

McElroy estimates she’ll owe between 50 and 60 thousand dollars for law school.  But within six years, she’ll pay it off.
McElroy is one of the 15 ACHLS students who has applied and will hear within two weeks if she’s attending the Mass School of Law.

By the time the accepted students graduate, they’ll join the rest of the country’s newly minted JDs.
Some will struggle to find work. Others will launch careers in the legal profession.
No matter where they went to school.
If that softens the divide between the less and more affluent students, the college has served its mission well.

Sheryl Rich-Kern has been contributing stories for NHPR since 2006, covering education, social services, business, health care and an occasional quirky yarn that epitomizes life in New Hampshire. Sherylâââ

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