Simon’s Rock broke new ground after it established the nation’s first early college in 1966. Unlike other radical education ideas seeded in the 60s, educating bright, motivated students after the tenth or eleventh grade sparked a movement. The number of early colleges has grown rapidly from just one in 1966 to hundreds today. More are expected. New Hampshire policymakers announced a statewide pilot initiative that promises students—who take and pass a rigorous proficiency exam—the opportunity to enroll in college after the tenth or eleventh grade. Governor David Patterson proposed expanding early colleges in New York during his recent State of the State address, and reports indicate that Massachusetts and Utah may be next to adopt the New Hampshire approach, recommended by the New Commission on Skills of the American Workforce in their report, “Tough Choices or Tough Times.”
“We’re seeing a growing sense that the country needs to radically rethink the way it handles the transition from secondary to higher education,” Bard College at Simon’s Rock Provost Mary Marcy said. “For many students four years of high school is a rich and fulfilling experience. But for too many that track doesn’t make sense.” Marcy is heartened that New Hampshire is moving forward with the panel’s key recommendation and will not require students take the exam, but invite interested students to investigate whether early college is the right option for them.
Since its founding, Simon’s Rock has served as the national early college model. The college has lead workshops, consultations, and residencies through its Institute for Early College Pedagogy since 2005, when the college received a major grant from the Gates Foundation. “The Institute allows Simon’s Rock to focus on advancing the successes of early college education beyond this campus,” said Anne O’Dwyer, associate dean of academic affairs. “We are able not only to be the national model, but through these workshops we can work directly with educators and administrators interested in learning from our experience and gaining direct insight into how to effectively educate adolescent college students.”
The idea isn’t just gaining traction in the U.S.; international institutions are attracted to the earlier approach. This month faculty member John Weinstein traveled to Tel Aviv in Israel to work with the Israel Center for Youth Leadership, which is planning an early college AA program. In February, Simon’s Rock faculty and administrators U Ba Win, Patricia Sharpe, and Anne O’Dwyer will travel to Fairbanks, Alaska to consult with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks to help inform the development of the BioFAIR.
While these programs are rooted in the Simon’s Rock idea, they are not the same. As early college high schools, early colleges, and early entrance programs grow, they have also diversified. Such diversity in mission and structure is evidenced in Bard’s own system where two different types of early college approaches are employed. Bard College at Simon’s Rock, which remains unique in the movement as a four-year, independently accredited, BA granting liberal arts institution designed exclusively to educate students in a campus environment after the tenth or eleventh grade. In contrast, Bard High School Early Colleges are early college high schools, combining high school and college curriculum and operating as a public school, granting AA degrees.
Still other early entrance programs (unaffiliated with Bard) like Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS) are examples of early college career institutions that take shape within a larger traditional institution— in this case, at the University of North Texas.
“What many early entrance programs share is a commitment to re-examining the basic assumptions of American secondary and post-secondary schooling,” Marcy explains. “The proliferation and diversity of early colleges and early college high schools is evidence of the need that exists for an intensive educational experience that takes younger students seriously.” The early college may answer many missions, and proliferate in a variety of forms, but most remain rooted in the core idea which began more than four decades ago on a small, wooded campus in New England.