From the time he was 10 years old, Michael Nduati wanted to be a doctor. Growing up in a Los Angeles suburb, the straight-A student devoured nature programs on TV and nurtured classroom passions for chemistry and biology. When it came time to apply to college, Nduati knew what he wanted--all medicine, all the time.

Last September, he enrolled in the Biomedical Sciences Program offered jointly by the University of California at Riverside and the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine --a rigorous curriculum that reduces the traditional eight years of undergraduate and medical schooling to seven. "I think of it as a better education, and it's faster," says the 18-year-old freshman.

Call them combined or accelerated plans. Some 500 colleges and universities--about a quarter of four-year schools nationwide--offer programs that join a traditional bachelor's education to a master's or professional degree, according to college-guide publisher Peterson's. The offerings are surprisingly diverse: six-year BA/MD degrees, five-year BA/MBA programs, even a six-year curriculum that folds an undergraduate nursing certificate into law school.

Most of these programs use demanding curriculums, fewer electives, and the ocassional summer class to cut a student's total instruction time by one or even two years. That not only slashes ever-spiraling tuition bills (which grew by 5% in 1997) but also results in a "found" year for go-getters eager to hit the world running. "The time and money savings can be a real incentive for bright students," says Roger Swanson, a Phoenix-based consultant to university admissions and registrars' offices.

Indeed, the competitive appeal of the graduate degree has never been stronger. As more Americans earn their bachelor's, advanced degrees have become a workplace trump card--and today's kids know it. In 1987, 43% of those who took the Scholastic Assessment Test said they hoped to earn a master's or doctorate. By 1997, the number had climbed to 54%. Now, colleges and universities are putting programs together to meet the demand. Yale University, for example, just launched the Select Program in Engineering, which allows bright undergrads to add on a one-year master's degree.

"As more and more people look for graduate education, we're going to see innovations on how all this training is tied together," says A. Dallas Martin Jr., president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Not all educators are quick to endorse a combined degree. Some say graduate and undergraduate work should be done at different schools, which helps expose students to new faculty and new ideas. The criticism is especially harsh for combined college and MBA programs, which can throw together green 21-year-olds with grizzled business veterans. "It's difficult to place an MBA with no experience in the job market," says Ilker Baybars, senior deputy dean at Carnegie Mellon University's Graduate School of Industrial Administration, which only rarely allows "exceptional" undergrads on the MBA track.

FIERCE RACE. Just how do combined-degree programs work? Each school designs its programs differently, but most fall into two categories. The first is a structured offering that admits students as college freshmen and guides them, step by step, through a pre-crafted curriculum. The second is a less formal alternative that allows students to submatriculate later in their college careers.

The pre-designed programs are most common for professional degrees in business or medicine, such as that offered by the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Its six-year BA/MD includes special seminars and internships from the first day. Competition for these "integrated" slots is intense because if students can get through the undergraduate curriculum, they have a much smoother path into professional school. Although not "accelerated," Brown University's eight-year Program in Liberal Medical Education screened 2,018 applicants for just 82 openings. What's the lure? Those with at least a B average earn direct entry into medical school without taking the med boards--and having to apply to other schools.

While these integrated programs might hold instant appeal for an aspiring doctor or architect, educators caution that they're only for a tiny portion of hyper-motivated students. "A very high percentage of undergraduates changes majors at least once," observes Donald Resnick, director of admissions at New York University Law School. He suggests a student "do some introspection and research" before taking the plunge.

Those who do are likely to encounter a demanding workload that dwarfs that of high-school honors classes. For Tulane University's five-year engineering and MBA degree, students must first cram four years of engineering classes into three. "You're packing a full boat," says Ronald Anderson, associate dean at the New Orleans-based school.

At Cal-Riverside's biomed program, there are only 24 medical-school slots for the initial class of 250, though as many as 200 drop out before the med-school phase kicks in. These numbers may sound stark, but according to program officials, they are similar or better than drop-out rates for traditional pre-meds.

The majority of combined-degree programs aren't so regimented. Instead of applying as high school seniors, students typically wait until their second or third college year before submatriculating in a graduate program. That's the case at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., which offers a "fifth year free" to qualified undergrads eager to tack on a master's.

Clark senior Joseph McNeil, 21, entered college convinced he wanted to get a doctorate in psychology. Although psych is one of his two majors, he's now hoping to become a screenwriter. So he's staying an extra year, working toward a master's in professional communication. "The work is so much more enjoyable," says McNeil of his advanced curriculum. "In other courses, you often have a feeling that there's no relevance to life after graduation." For McNeil, who was juggling two majors and a flurry of graduate courses, planning was an essential part of his five-year agenda. To fit in all the requirements, he had to lobby to get course credit for an internship and also take a summer psychology class.

Any student considering a combined-degree program should make allies with a savvy adviser, preferably a professor. The right advocate can make all the difference when designing a tightly packed course sequence or navigating the bureaucracies of academic departments.

AID ALERT. Planning also comes into effect when dealing with financial aid. The majority of grants and scholarships are made at the undergraduate level. This means that if the school classifies enrollees as graduate students at any point during the first four years, they may lose some or all of their backing. Before enrolling in any combined program, check with the financial aid office to ensure that you are classified as an undergrad for as long as possible.

Plotting the future, however, should come naturally to those bent on earning a combined degree. Just ask Nduati, who is already planning to become an emergency-room physician. "You've got to take it seriously going into the first year," he says. Good advice for those with the mettle for working over-time.

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