A school that is said to be the first of its kind in New Hampshire is poised to provide community college students with another way to earn a bachelor’s degree.The Salem-based American College of History & Legal Studies is a new two-year school that will open its doors this fall. But while all current two-year institutions in New Hampshire offer the “front end” of higher education – the freshman and sophomore years – the American College is a so-called “completion school,” for the junior and senior years of undergraduate study.To the New Hampshire Postsecondary Education Commission – which regulates all higher education in the state – this was unprecedented, said Kathryn Dodge, executive director.“Our commission is very eager to support additional quality options for students,” Dodge said. “That said, we were approached by these folks and they said, ‘We want to start a completion college.’ We said, ‘What’s that?’”It turns out that the concept of a completion school is also extremely rare nationwide, with similar programs only found in Illinois and California, according to Lawrence Velvel, founding dean of the college.After pitching the idea to the New Hampshire commission, a team investigated the school’s plans for curriculum, capacity and a host of other state standards. In March, commissioners finally recommended approval for the school to open and offer a bachelor of arts degree in history and legal studies.“We’re so excited about it,” Dodge said. “Higher education needs to be open to innovation, and they made good on that count.”Velvel, who is also the dean at the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover, Mass., said his idea for a completion college emerged five years ago.His thinking is that one of the country’s problems is that it’s “ahistorical,” Velvel said, meaning, people don’t know the country’s history, and consequently, they keep making the same mistakes over and over again.In addition, many of the country’s most influential leaders are lawyers, Velvel said, so the school would aim to graduate a good percentage of people who will become “historically literate” lawyers and good critical thinkers.But one of the biggest reasons for starting the school, Velvel said, is to provide opportunities to people who don’t have the resources for Harvard or Yale.“As grandiose as it sounds, we want people who haven’t been affluent and who haven’t had gilt-edged educations,” Velvel said. “We understand how to create an inexpensive school for people who haven’t had all the breaks. Why not extend it to the undergraduate education?”
Law school next?
Tuition for the college is set at $10,000 a year, Velvel said, with scholarships available to cover half that amount. And, if students take advantage of the school’s “pathway” program, further savings are available.Students who do well in their junior year may combine their senior year with the first year of study at the Massachusetts School of Law. Tuition there is $14,500 a year, which compares to $35,000 for other big-name law schools.The pathway program gives those graduating from two-year programs an “interesting option” for extending their education, Dodge said.“Community college students don’t typically think of themselves going to law school,” she said.
School leaders selected Salem for its position among many community colleges within 60 miles. The school has already forged relationships with five community colleges, including Nashua, Great Bay in Portsmouth, the New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord and two schools in Massachusetts, said Chief Operating Officer Maureen Mooney of Merrimack.These relationships, called “articulation agreements,” mean students at those community schools can take a particular set of courses within their first two years, score well and gain automatic admission to the American College. (Five more agreements are in the works, including one with Manchester Community College.)The Massachusetts School of Law is contributing $1 million to get the college started, Velvel said.From there, the school plans to keep costs down by having its professors teach several courses, streamlining the number of faculty and using adjunct members. Leaders plan to grow the faculty depending on enrollment.Its quarters on Manor Park Way in Salem will be nice, but not elaborate. Many legal materials will be available through the Internet, saving on expensive books.Students will be required to take courses in American history, writing, and the history of the constitution, economics and government. They can then choose to focus on four concentrations: history of civil rights, history of urban growth and immigration, history of American foreign relations and lessons of American history. Students who don’t choose the law school pathway can simply graduate with a bachelor’s degree.If the school enrolls 50 students for its first year, Velvel said he’d be “delighted,” but said the school would open with as few as 10 students. Mooney has received “a handful” of applications already.The college’s next step is to get the commission’s approval ratified by the state Legislature.Eventually, the school plans to seek accreditation from the New England Association of Schools & Colleges. Accreditation would allow students to apply for federal grants and loans.Velvel said he hopes the completion school idea will be emulated around the country.“If we just let this get underway, I think it will be like a ‘Field of Dreams,’” Velvel said. “They will come.”More information on the American College of History and Legal Studies is available at achls.org. — KAREN LOVETT/THE TELEGRAPH
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This article appears in the February 26 2010 issue of New Hampshire Business Review