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Bard College at Simon’s Rock is still the only four-year liberal arts college in the nation created specifically to serve students ready to begin college early. In the forty-four years since it was founded, the early college concept has gained awareness and is now a part of the American higher education discourse. The exact meaning, however, has become opaque as it is applied to a shifting and rapidly growing landscape of institutions.

On September 30, Provost Mary Marcy convened a dozen chief administrators of early college programs from around the country. The group met in New York City to discuss what it means to be an early college. “There has been a lot of noise and a lot of momentum around the idea of the early college, but very little coherence,” Marcy said. “I researched the literally hundreds of programs that call themselves early colleges, with three basic criteria in mind: they had to offer college level faculty, college curriculum, and they had to be selective. I found only around fifteen programs that measured up.”

“Colleagues at these institutions were genuinely excited to hear from me. There is a real sense of recognition that Simon’s Rock set the standard for what an early college should offer. I wanted to harness this to explore our common purpose and to think about developing a consortium presence that represents the rigorous nature and high quality of our institutions.”

While hundreds of early colleges, most of them high school early colleges, have been established in the past five or six years, most of these programs don’t look like college. “The objective of the conference was to develop meaningful criteria around the early college concept,” Marcy explained.

The Simon’s Rock model is based on a pedagogical rationale that questions the relatively recent notion that students can only enter college with a high school diploma at age eighteen. “The students we serve aren’t simply a population that could benefit from acceleration through grades eleven and twelve. We offer a genuine alterative for students who are profoundly attracted to education, to being challenged and engaged—students who want to have the most rigorous and exciting education experience possible,” Marcy said.

“We recognize that the early college landscape is shifting around us, and we can’t control that,” Marcy said. “What we can do is turn to other institutions that will stand with us in holding the educational and academic ground of what it means to be an early college, and work with them to define ourselves to the world.”

Future meetings are in the works to discuss shared best practices, a concerted media strategy to represent a consortium identity around top early colleges, a shared website, and annual conferences.

Conference attendees included chief administrators from Boston University Academy, California State University, Los Angeles, Mary Baldwin College, The Clarkson School, The Early College at Guilford, The University of Iowa, University of North Texas, University of Washington, University of Washington, University of West Georgia, and Westminster College.