Cody Christensen chose the University of Kansas because it offered a rare opportunity: the chance to get both his bachelor's and Juris Doctor degrees in six years.
The current freshman will spend three years knocking out required classes as a political science major. Christensen's fourth year will include law classes that will also be used as electives to fulfill remaining credit requirements for his bachelor's degree.
Completing the degrees in six years, instead of the usual seven, will have multiple benefits, he says.
"There's the economic benefit of saving a year's tuition in college," says Christensen, a member of the inaugural class for University of Kansas' Legal Education Accelerated Degree Program. Another benefit of doing the program, he says, is meeting other students who are passionate about law.
"It's the best of both worlds," he says.
[Weigh postponing the LSAT from December to January.]
Kansas is one of a few schools that allow students to complete undergraduate and law school in six years. The American Bar Association does not keep count, but legal education experts say fewer than 20 schools in the United States could give students this option.
The University of Denver is accepting applications now for its new six-year program, as is the law school at Suffolk University in Massachusetts. Suffolk offers two paths through partner schools for students interested in a dual degree. St. Thomas University in Florida also allows students to get their bachelor's and J.D. degrees quickly.
These programs move at a grueling pace, and that's not for everyone, experts say.
"This is for people who really are quite confident that this is the career path that they want," says Lumen Mulligan, co-director of the University of Kansas program. "It is a little less flexible than another course of study."
Prospective college students considering an accelerated program should review several factors before committing.
1. Admittance criteria: Many of these programs conditionally accept students with high SAT or ACT scores and grade point averages. After students begin college, they take the LSAT typically before completing their junior year and must score high on that test as well.
At University of Denver, students must score one point above the median LSAT for the prior year's law class and have a GPA that is 0.1 above the prior year's class, says Iain Davis, the assistant dean of admissions and student financial management at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.
[Try three tips for law school interview success.]
"We don't want to be inundated with applications from people that aren't just going to make that mark," he says. "Our expectation is they will be high achieving students."
Other schools have similar requirements. At University of Kansas, for example, students must have at least a 3.5 grade point average and ACT score of 26. On the LSAT they must score at least a 157 out of a possible 180 points.
At Suffolk University, students starting the dual-degree track as freshmen need an almost perfect academic record. "We're looking at students that have an A average coming out of high school," says Camille Nelson, the school's dean.
2. Size: Few high school seniors will be certain about their professional careers and ready to pursue them, experts say. Many school leaders don't plan for these programs to be large.
"On average, we probably enroll one student every other year through our program," Douglas Ray, dean of the law school at St. Thomas University, said via email.
At University of Denver, Davis anticipates only a handful of students will enter its new program.
Christensen's program at University of Kansas has about 15 students. Seeing his program peers may not always come easy. During his freshman year, there are less coordinated meeting times for the group.
"It's only coincidence if we have classes with one another," he says.
3. Program structure: Some schools have a special curriculum for students forgoing the traditional four-year undergraduate experience to go to law school early; others permit students to have more choice in which classes they take leading up to law school.
"We have several law school-sponsored functions during the undergraduate portion of the degree," says Mulligan of University of Kansas. "Freshmen, for example, we take them to hear arguments with the Kansas Supreme Court."
Students can also spend a day at a private firm and the district attorney's office to see different types of legal practice, he says. Sophomores will volunteer in legal settings and third-year students will take classes specially designed for them and taught by law faculty.
[Balance law school applications and college classes.]
"There are going to be opportunities to review different areas of their first-year curriculum, to practice brief writing and to practice oral arguments," says Mulligan.
At Denver, students aren't guided through a special curriculum. They are encouraged to meet with their academic advisers to make sure they are on track for completing all required undergraduate course work by the end of junior year.
Schools typically cater to incoming freshmen for the dual-degree option, but some – such as University of Denver and Suffolk University – allow students to join the program after they've started college. Experts note that matriculating can be difficult, though.
"Students who are in the middle of their sophomore year or they're in their junior year, they may not have enough time to complete all of their required classes prior to the end of their junior year," Davis says. "That's really the biggest challenge for those students."
Time is often hard to manage for all students, experts say, but they agree with Christensen about the financial value of these programs.
"This is a wonderful way to reduce the cost of getting a professional education," says Ray. "You only admit students that you feel have a high probability of success."
Searching for a law school? Get our complete rankings of Best Law Schools.