There is immense value in a rigorous, broad-based, liberal arts education. Through rich discussion, application, and writing across a variety of disciplines, the liberal arts prepares students for their careers and readies them for lifelong learning and adapting to new circumstances, skills with increasing importance in the age of automation. Yet, access to the valuable liberal arts experience has historically been limited to relatively few students, most of them privileged. While many schools provide significant financial aid to defray costs, today’s liberal arts colleges still predominantly serve students who are white, wealthy, and come from college-going families. As a result, many talented young students are missing an opportunity to access the liberal arts experience, narrowing the pipeline for a diverse group of future leaders.

Bard College opened the first Bard High School Early College (BHSEC) in 2001, with the mission of extending the liberal arts college experience to public high school students, particularly lower-income and minority students. Since then, seven campuses in total have opened in urban areas around the country. The BHSEC model, which revolves around rigorous college-level coursework and exposure to the liberal arts experience, gives high school students the opportunity to earn college credit and an associate’s degree alongside their high school diploma. Enrollment is diverse: across all campuses, 15 percent of students are Asian, 40 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic, and 26 percent white. Forty percent of students at BHSEC are first-generation, and an estimated 68 percent are eligible for federal Pell grants. And importantly, students who attend a BHSEC are likely to succeed. Overall, the BHSECs have a graduation rate of 98.4 percent and an associate’s attainment rate of 82.4 percent.

In our new case study, out today, we explore the BHSEC model in more depth, seeking to understand these impressive results by examining the structural and pedagogical elements of the BHSEC model. We summarize our findings from interviews, data analysis, a literature review, and a site visit. We also dive deeper into some nuanced aspects of the model, including admissions selectivity and diversity, school district relationships, and the BHSEC to four-year college transition.

We hope the case study is instructive for other institutions who are interested in expanding the reach of a rigorous liberal arts experience to high-school students, particularly those who have not historically had access. To that end, the case study concludes with several recommendations, including on how to

  • Develop an equitable admissions process leading to qualified and diverse students;
  • Hire and train faculty prepared to teach across high school and college curriculum; and
  • Develop and maintain strong partnerships with public school districts.

Although each institution, environment, and student population have their own unique challenges, institutions pursuing an early college high school program can use the BHSEC model for insight on how to address some of these overarching roadblocks.