Starting College While Still In School

At Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, Mass., students can start college when they are still in high school. In contrast to many early-college programs, students live at this school and truly go to college.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Ask teenagers how they feel about high school, and you're likely to hear a variation on this theme.

Unidentified Student #1: High school was just boring.

Unidentified Student #2: And I was bored out of my mind.

Unidentified Student #3: Public school was really boring.

BLOCK: Those students found a way out of their boredom. They went straight to college without ever getting a high school diploma. NPR's Larry Abramson paid a visit to Bard College at Simon's Rock, where 15-year-olds can start work on a bachelor's degree.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The concept of Simon's Rock is simple. The last two years of high school are a waste of time, so go straight to college. Robin Kaskee(ph) is only 18 years old, and she's about to get her associate's degree.

Ms. ROBIN KASKEE: In high school, you're done, basically, with your education junior year for the type of student I was, and then senior year is about writing your applications and sending them out during Christmas break, and then waiting and crossing your fingers and hoping you'll get in.

ABRAMSON: Kaskee is sitting in the student union, which looks out on this beautiful, wooded campus in western Massachusetts. She is proof of the Simon's Rock concept. Kaskee felt totally ready for college-level work when she arrived here after her sophomore year in high school. Like other kids here, Kaskee says moving away from home that young was not a big deal. But one thing did surprise her.

Ms. KASKEE: I don't know, it was a bit of an adjustment coming freshman year and realizing that you're not the smartest kid in the room anymore. I was used to being the girl that dominated the conversation, or got the top score on any test that I was taking. And here, that's just not the case, and I don't think that's the focus either.

ABRAMSON: The focus is on small classes and strong teaching.

(Soundbite of English class)

Dr. HAL HOLLADAY (Professor of English, Bard College, Simon's Rock): Who else lets go of the great wheel?

Unidentified Student #4: Goneril and Regan.

Dr. HOLLADAY: Goneril and Regan, OK.

ABRAMSON: Before Hal Holladay arrives to teach, his students tell me he is awesome. For 90 minutes, he and 10 students discuss the play seminar-style, the way they would on any college campus. This is clearly college, not high school. No time is wasted on discipline, on announcements or attendance. Simon's Rock dean, Sam Ruhmkorff, says kids here are treated like adults, so that's how they act.

Dr. SAMUEL RUHMKORFF (Dean of Academic Affairs, Bard College, Simon's Rock): Taking our students absolutely seriously intellectually. And we recognize that they are 15, 16 or 17, but we respect their opinions. We let them argue with us, overrule us. We want to know what they think.

ABRAMSON: Kids may be treated like adults academically, but when it comes to dorm life, they're treated more like teenagers, with closer supervision than at a typical college. But administrators say discipline is less of a problem when nearly everyone on campus wants to be here. That's the real force that holds things together. Oh, and there's no time to get into too much trouble. So what do you do on the weekend?

Unidentified Student #5: Homework.

ABRAMSON: A gaggle of girls is picking at the food from the school cafeteria. There is only one place to eat here. Leah Solitsky(ph), 16, is eating lunch with her fur hat on. She says many of the social pressures of high school disappear at Simon's Rock.

Ms. LEAH SOLITSKY (Student, Bard College, Simon's Rock): In high school, everything is grades, or everything is marijuana. And here, the kids who work really hard don't do it for grades. They do it because they love learning. The difference is huge.

ABRAMSON: Mindy Eisser(ph) was an honor student in high school, but she says she was getting terrible grades. Then at Simon's Rock, she met her adviser, who is apparently some sort of superhero.

Ms. MINDY EISSER (Student, Bard College, Simon's Rock): She is the smartest, most amazing woman, nicest, most - her brain is like this big. I feel like if I don't know something or if I didn't do the reading, I would be personally letting her down.

ABRAMSON: All these small classes and close relationships cost money. Tuition is $50,000 a year. Eighty percent of kids get some sort of financial aid, but many students said they weren't sure their parents could afford to keep them here. Now, this place is not for everyone. That goes for teachers, too. They are intimately responsible for a small group of students. For Gidon Eshel, who came from the University of Chicago to teach environmental science, the difference was day and night.

Dr. GIDON ESHEL (Bard Center Fellow, Environmental Science, Simon's Rock): Well, at Chicago, I mean, they can tell you whatever they want. But really, teaching is totally irrelevant. I mean, nobody spends any innovative effort to teach. Here, it's very different.

ABRAMSON: Different and a little lonely. Gidon Eshel says at Chicago, he could find bright people in his field around every corner.

Dr. ESHEL: There isn't anybody in my field here. I am totally alone.

ABRAMSON: Simon's Rock sees itself as a unique outpost, a quirky survivor from the '60s reform efforts that gave birth to this school. In recent years, the school has helped to foster dozens of early college programs around the country. Simon's Rock teaches seminars on early college pedagogy. But the school remains an odd duck, an enduring experiment that's tough to replicate. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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Correction Jan. 7, 2009

Some versions of this story implied that Regan and Goneril were characters in Shakespeare's play "Twelfth Night." They are actually in "King Lear."

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