SALEM, N.H. – Students at the American College of History and Legal Studies are getting used to two things: questions instead of lectures from their professors, and questions from dubious friends and relatives who worry they're guinea pigs in an educational experiment.
"My mom said, 'We'll give you a year and see how it works,'" said Scott Estey, 24, of Raymond. "She's pretty skeptical."
The unconventional college opened in August in Salem, across a state line from the unconventional law school that provided its start-up funding. Designed to funnel students to the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover, it offers the equivalent of junior and senior years and just one degree.
Students who do well their first year can combine their last year of undergraduate work with their first year of law school. Four of the five students in the inaugural class — Estey wants to be a high school history teacher — hope to do that.
The college appears to be the first designed to feed students to a particular law school. A few other law schools have arrangements with outside undergraduate colleges, but most are already affiliated with universities, said Judith Welch Wegner, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law who helped write a 2007 report critical of law school education.
The college grew out of Dean Lawrence Velvel's concerns about students entering law school with weak writing skills and a near-total lack of American history knowledge — something he called vital for lawyers, given the profession's historical influence on American politics and foreign policy.
"We're aware that we can't solve all the problems afflicting law students in law schools, but we can try to nurture our own garden and hope that if we are successful other people will adopt the same techniques," said Velvel, also dean of the law school.
With annual tuition of $15,000 and $10,000, respectively, both the law school and the new undergraduate college promote themselves as ideal alternatives for working-class students. Officials hope the new undergraduate program will appeal not only to aspiring lawyers, but also to community college graduates who want to boost their earning potential by getting a bachelor's degree or to law enforcement officers hoping to advance their careers.
The new, no-frills college consists of half a dozen offices and classrooms tucked in the corner of an office building. Classes are held from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. three nights a week. Students sit at folding tables arranged in a square and topped with plates of cookies. There are no lectures, just hours of questions and discussions of the assigned reading.
"If they haven't done the reading and they don't come to class prepared, it shows, and they know it," said history professor Michael Chesson. "It's not 'chalk and talk.' In some ways, it's utilitarian; it's vocational."
Nicole Short, 21, who earned an associate's degree in criminal justice at a Massachusetts community college last year, said the volume of reading has taken some getting used to, as has being called on so frequently in class.
"My ultimate goal is to go over to the law school, so I think the whole fact that you can't hide is great preparation for that," said Short, who lives in North Reading, Mass.
But there are risks. The school had hoped to open with 10 to 50 students but has just five. It plans to seek accreditation by New England Association of Schools and Colleges, but that will take several years. The law school is accredited by the New England group but not by the American Bar Association, which limits the states in which graduates can take the bar exam.
The Massachusetts School of Law, which opened in 1988, averages 480 applicants a year and accepts about 70 percent. Sixty-five percent of its graduates pass the bar exam on the first try; 85 percent eventually pass. According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, 79 percent of the nation's first-time test takers passed the bar exam in 2009.
"Most strong law schools that are well established would be disinclined to try to create such a system because they recognize that their applicant pools are already very strong," said Wegner, an author of a 2007 report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching that was highly critical of law school education.
Joanne Curran, 42, said she is picking up where she left off 20 years ago when she earned a paralegal associate's degree. Now the mother of a teenager and a 3-year-old, she said it has been a challenge to fit in school work with a daily schedule that includes rising early to feed her family's farm animals and then spending the day caring for both her young daughter and an elderly relative with Parkinson's disease.
"I can read if both happen to nap at the same time," said Curran, of Derry.
"Let me get my test score back, and we'll see how well I'm fitting it all in," she joked. "For me, it's a family commitment because everyone has to pitch in more. They're used to me doing stuff for them. It's not easy, but hopefully it will be worth it."