Williams & Tremaine: Why Should a College Education Start at Age 18, and only after HS? Time to Change the ‘When’ & ‘Who’ of College

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It’s no secret that college enrollment in the U.S. has dropped, and these declines aren’t slowing down: This fall, college enrollment nationally decreased by nearly another half-million students. These drops are unevenly distributed across race, socioeconomic class and even gender, with recent reports showing that young men are opting out of college at record-setting rates.

While the pandemic accelerated this trend, this crisis has been building for decades. Even as a college degree has increasingly become a prerequisite for stable, living-wage jobs, the cost of college — in both money and time — has become more and more prohibitive. These are fundamental failures; addressing them head-on means questioning some of the very fundamentals of college. 

For example: Why should a college education start at age 18, and only after a student graduates from high school?

This is the core question that led to the founding of Bard Early College 20 years ago. To answer it, we decided to test a radically new idea: building a tuition-free branch of a college inside an urban school system and opening the doors to students who hadn’t yet finished high school. We were guided by two core beliefs: that young teenagers all over the country are intellectually and socially ready for genuine college study and that, by using public school systems as a point of access, we can ensure that the path from high school to college is, to the greatest extent possible, clear of obstacles.

Over the last two decades, we’ve partnered with public school systems to open eight public early colleges in New York, Newark, New Orleans, Cleveland, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Our students are earning their high school diplomas and, in many cases, an associate in arts degree from Bard College — all tuition-free. Rather than simply offering college credit for individual classes or tests, 11th and 12th grades are replaced with a serious and supportive undergraduate curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences. 

A recent report from the Education Trust of New York on the rate at which low-income graduates of New York City’s 1,520 public high schools finish college on time found four-year completion rates of 84% at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan and 75% at Bard High School Early College Queens. This placed them as the two most successful public high schools in this category statewide, outpacing the state average for on-time college completion by more than 20%.   

Since 2011, we’ve awarded over 3,000 college degrees to students from all walks of life — including, and perhaps most importantly, backgrounds that remain severely underrepresented in higher education. These are real college degrees from true, college-level courses of study. The outcomes for Bard students are both a testament both to what young people can do when an education system takes their intellectual lives seriously and to the need for substantially more such programs within public high schools. 

In fact, The American Institutes of Research found that early college graduates nationally are 20 percent more likely to earn a college degree than academically matched peers. These include the Gateway to College Network, which operates in 14 states with nearly 30 college partners to provide pathways into and through college for disconnected 16- to 24-year-olds, and the Ohio Early College Association, made up of 13 early colleges that provide accelerated academic programs that help high schoolers earn free college credit.

Changing the “when” of college, also changes the “who.” At a time when 60% of students at the nation’s top colleges come from the top 1% of the income spectrum, students in Bard Early College reflect the demographics of the communities with which we partner. Two-thirds of our students meet the income  eligibility requirements  for federal Pell grants, and well over half are the first in their families to attend college.

And here’s where affordability comes in. Because early college programs work within the public school system, students and families save money. For example, the 4,200 students who participate in the Massachusetts Early College Initiative will earn an estimated 25,000 college credits, saving over $5 million in tuition and fees. They will be able to finish their degrees faster and start their careers sooner. 

But the chance to start serious college learning at an earlier age is also about going farther, not only faster. Across the country, students who participate in programs like these, according to research in the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse, are more likely to graduate high school, enroll in college, persist in college and complete a college degree or credential than their peers in traditional high schools.

Two decades into this work, such programs are still the exception in American higher education. They shouldn’t be. 

Bard is working with other leading education organizations around the country to drive structural change that will create the conditions for early college to reach significantly more young people. We are working to expand the body of research on early college and share what practices and models are most effective in early college classrooms. We are supporting other early college programs on training and school design to increase the number of high-quality and equitable early college programs beyond Bard’s network. And we have increased our focus on policy engagement, to strengthen city, state, and federal policies that can open doors to college for young people at an earlier age. 

In New York, 20 years after our first school opened its doors, we’re working to launch our third campus in the Bronx. We know that there are young people all across our home state and across the country who are ready to start serious college study early if given the chance. 

But to make this happen, we will need to rethink core assumptions about what college can and should look like — and when, where and for whom it happens. 

Dumaine Williams is dean of Bard Early Colleges. Stephen Tremaine is executive director of Bard Early Colleges.

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