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Ian Bickford
Ian Bickford, provost, Bard College at Simon’s Rock

High school students today spend an increasing proportion of their time thinking about getting in to college. Yet applying to college tells students next to nothing about what to expect there.

The measures by which college admission is granted have very little to do with what success in college requires. High school, conventionally conceived, does not prepare students for college. At best it prepares students to apply to college.

This so-called “preparation” is worse than neutral. It exerts a significant and damaging influence upon the way students learn to think about their education, about themselves and about one another. They contort themselves into the narrowest possible definitions of success, believing they must stand out from the crowd by excelling at normalcy and banality. These feverish competitors can be forgiven if, in the long term, they begin to distrust the enterprise of education as a series of false hurdles without meaningful reward.

In the 50 years since the educational movement known as “early college” was born in Great Barrington, Mass., at the college I now lead, we’ve learned that for many students the path to higher education can be – and should be – reimagined as a six-year rather than an eight-year arc.

This is possible, and the experience of both high school and college is improved, when the barriers between them are removed: when we replace gates with bridges.

Related: Early-college high school graduates more likely to get degree

This model is scalable and cost-effective, and it has received bipartisan support in state and national legislation. More importantly, it has been shown to improve quality of education, increase college persistence and completion, and reduce achievement gaps.

“High school, conventionally conceived, does not prepare students for college. At best it prepares students to apply to college. This so-called ‘preparation’ is worse than neutral.”

Bard College at Simon’s Rock and the Bard Early Colleges, with our partners in the College in High School Alliance, practice versions of this model in public, private, urban, rural, district and charter contexts, with compelling outcomes. At Simon’s Rock and the Bard Early Colleges, we emphasize the liberal arts and sciences; others provide early college options in vocational and professional education. Taken together, the full programmatic diversity of higher education is reflected.

Within this movement, the prevalent and usually empty discourse of “college readiness” sounds an entirely different note: readiness isn’t something achieved or demonstrated all at once. It is supported over time, scaffolded and staged, inviting students to think about their education in the present tense, as something of intrinsic, immediate value, not something for which they are merely getting ready.

Related: MOOCs: A path to early college

From the beginning, Simon’s Rock has enrolled students directly into college after the 10th or 11th grade. Students come from everywhere, having exhausted the most challenging offerings of their local high schools or outgrown the curriculum at elite private or specialized public schools.

“Even in this promising age of inclusion and equity on college campuses, the high-school-to-college gatekeeping system overwhelmingly benefits the elite and the affluent.”

For these students, the 11th and 12th grades risk becoming almost entirely an exercise in getting into elite colleges, even though they’re already ready for college in conventional terms and can demonstrate as much in conventional ways, through standardized tests and transcripts and pithy personal narratives. We simply think they have more to offer than these conventions imply, so we invite them to step out of line and start college now.

This idea gained a new and greater scope 15 years ago when Bard president Leon Botstein and New York City Schools Chancellor Harold Levy agreed to start a version of Simon’s Rock embedded in the public school system, publicly funded and at no cost to families. A team from Bard and Simon’s Rock established the first Bard High School Early College, which included the ninth and 10th grades in its program of study.

We found that if those grades are taught by college professors with a deep commitment to adolescent education – the same professors who would later teach the same students in a rigorous college curriculum – we could serve an entirely new demographic with similar academic outcomes. Acceleration to college effectively became a radical form of access to college.

Related: Early-college programs rethink high expectations

In other words, college professors practicing a supportive, collaborative, process-based, writing-intensive pedagogy, deliberately linked to the liberal-arts tradition, with less emphasis on preparation and more on values like curiosity, problem-solving and critical inquiry, are able to guide students of diverse backgrounds and levels of preparation into college two years earlier than the norm.

With eight Bard schools in five states, we believe the model is poised – with the right public and private investment – to serve many, many more students than currently have access to it.

With the announcement of the Massachusetts Early College Initiative, the birthplace of the Early College movement became the most recent test site for this premise, providing leadership in New England for the much-needed expansion of early college options and, therefore, expansion of access to higher education for underrepresented students and first-generation college-goers.

Even in this promising age of inclusion and equity on college campuses, the high-school-to-college gatekeeping system overwhelmingly benefits the elite and the affluent.

Conventional high-school education colludes in seeking to prepare students for college admission rather than college education. The risk to affluent students is boredom and disaffection – not small problems – but the risk to underrepresented and lower-socioeconomic students and families is much greater.

A system built of hurdles and delays inevitably yields low rates of high-school completion, college entry, college persistence and college completion. The present system is costly in economic terms; in ethical terms, it is bankrupt.

Students who start college early are more likely, by a wide margin, than demographic peers to graduate from college. High school and college combined into six years, rather than eight years divided into two long stretches with no meaningful continuity between them, is less costly and more effective than present norms. It is also the best chance to restore the greatest traditions of the liberal arts and sciences to an educational system in which curiosity, imagination and the search for meaning are overwhelmed by a discourse of “readiness” that produces nothing, proves nothing and means nothing.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Ian Bickford is the provost of Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Mass. This essay was adapted from a talk at SXSW earlier this year.

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