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The Early College Moment by Mary B. Marcy

Each month, the Newsroom publishes commentary by the leadership at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. This ongoing series, called Perspectives, is one way in which the College adds its voice to important conversations in higher education.

For the 2008-2009 year, Perspectives will address different aspects of the early college movement. Topics will range from the philosophy behind early college, to the many forms early college programs take, to best practices for teaching and supporting early college students. All of these pieces draw from—and reflect on—the accumulated knowledge of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, founded in 1966 as the nation’s first early college. Since that time, interest in early college has blossomed. Hundreds of early college programs now exist—serving diverse needs through a variety of program structures in an array of settings. Within this vibrant landscape, Simon’s Rock remains not only the pioneering institution, but the nation’s only college of liberal arts and sciences expressly designed to educate students early. This is the unique, time-tested perspective that Simon’s Rock brings.

We open our 2008-2009 Perspectives series with an essay on the need for early college by Mary B. Marcy, provost and vice president of Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

The Early College Moment by Mary B. Marcy

Cultural presumptions and historical fact are not always in alignment. The American west of the 1800s was populated more by penniless immigrants than by John Wayne figures. The two-parent, single-breadwinner household was an anomaly of the postwar era, not a historical norm. And the assumption that basic education should be composed of an age-driven progression through high school is a relatively recent (and predominately American) phenomenon. For years students entered college from age fifteen or higher, based on their ability and other opportunities in their lives. The current structure through 12th grade was developed not primarily as a response to students’ intellectual needs, but was created as a mechanism to keep young people in school and out of the workforce (and away from the ranks of the unemployed), and also as a means of assimilating new immigrants. As education has laudably become more inclusive, it has also, to less acclaim, become more standardized. This can present a problem for students who are ready for significant academic challenge before the current conventional age of entry to college.

The great strength of American higher education is its diversity of opportunity. The American system of higher education is rightly considered the best in the world because students can find the education that matches their skills, interests, and passions, whether it involves a technical training program, a path to a professional degree, or a classic liberal arts education. To be sure, access to these pathways is not always simple or equitable, but the quality and opportunity is real.

By contrast, the great challenge of American basic education is its lack of such diversity of opportunity. Despite recognition that students develop at different rates with different affinities, it is the rare college-bound student who does not go through high school on an age-defined (rather than ability or interest-defined) progression. Yet we know this kind of rigidity does not serve all students well.

Rather than creating a funnel through the education system where students have an academic program that challenges them based on their curiosity and intellectual capacity, we have a tunnel that too often expects conformity through high school, and then spills into a nearly unlimited range of alternatives for college. Through the lens of Kierkegaard, our education system moves from the K-12 frustration of limited options to the post-secondary despair of infinite possibilities.

Given this situation, the notion of early college is neither revolutionary nor exclusive. Rather, it is a reasonable and entirely necessary response to what is missing in American education. When Elizabeth Blodgett Hall founded Simon’s Rock in 1966 as the nation’s first early college, she did so with this basic concept: the time to provide a rigorous, high-quality liberal arts education is when intellectual curiosity is in the ascendancy and college is more than an avenue to a profession. For many students, she believed, that time is in adolescence, at the ages of 15, 16, or 17. Since its earliest days, Simon’s Rock has enrolled students after their sophomore or junior year of high school; they engage immediately in college work, studying Plato and DuBois, Virginia Woolf, and Darwin, and yes, even Kierkegaard.

Just as the current age-based progression of the country’s model of basic education is not constructive for all students, early college is not a solution for everyone. But it is an attractive and educationally sound alternative for many.

A number of students who enroll in early college do so because they are not being adequately challenged, and have exhausted the limited options their current schooling provides. They may find that high school does not tap their cognitive abilities or personal passions. These same students may find that local dual enrollment and occasional college courses provide acceleration without excellence, and fall short of their needs for a personalized learning environment and a community of their peers. Advanced Placement courses can provide occasional challenge, but too frequently are simply part of the positioning process for college, rather than an engagement with serious college-level work. Students thus seek out early college because it will allow and encourage them to push their intellectual skills when they are ready to do so, in a community of their peers and without the endgame of career advancement.

Many students come to early college because they are motivated to explore and understand the world, and simply do not want to wait additional years to have the challenge and freedom that college provides. They may have become disaffected with traditional schooling and its lack of interest in their personal skills, and are seeking an environment that will help them find their own voice.

The focus in outstanding early colleges like Bard College at Simon’s Rock is on raising the ceiling, not the floor, of education. Students who will excel in this environment are those who are ready to find how far their distinctive voice and personal abilities can carry them. They come from all parts of the country and even the world, are from many races, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds. They are consciously choosing to be in a community of learners, one that values learning above mere credentialing, and one that still believes in—and realizes on a daily basis—the transformative power of education.

Unlike the hundreds of educational experiments from the 1960s that failed, Simon’s Rock succeeded. It succeeded in spite of a rural location, in spite of chronic underfunding, in spite of its challenge to educational convention. It succeeded because it had an academic legitimacy and intellectual currency that belied the unconventional age of its students.

Now, more than 40 years after the founding of Simon’s Rock, the idea of providing intellectual challenge and personal engagement to students at this age has gained considerable momentum. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Governors’ Association, and the federal government’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education have all pointed to early college as an important means of responding to challenges facing our educational system. The question is no longer whether early college is a good idea, but rather how we can most effectively make it work. As the nation’s first early college, we at Simon’s Rock have a few insights. Join us as we explore them!

Next month: An excerpt from Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture by Leon Botstein, president of Bard College.

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