Leadership & Governance

When 16-Year-Olds Go to College

Ian Bickford, provost of Bard College at Simon's Rock

April 20, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza

In January, Ian Bickford became provost of Bard College at Simon's Rock, a small four-year institution in Massachusetts that welcomes as freshmen students who have had enough of high school, for one reason or another, and choose to enroll in college directly after 10th or 11th grade.

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Mr. Bickford is a graduate of Simon's Rock and later served on its faculty. He talks about what is involved in creating a supportive environment at an early college.


RUTH HAMMOND: Hi, I'm Ruth Hammond, a senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Our guest here today is Ian Bickford; he's the new provost and Bard College at Simon's Rock. This is an unusual institution. It's 50 years old this year. Congratulations.

IAN BICKFORD: Thank you.

RUTH HAMMOND: Yes, and also you accept students who are generally about 16 years old that haven't finished high school, but they decided it's time to go to college. And that's why they go to Simon's Rock.

IAN BICKFORD: That's true.

RUTH HAMMOND: So what kind of students want to do that, and go to college before they finish high school?

IAN BICKFORD: We find that for many students, by the time they reach the end of 10th or 11th grade, they are ready for more. Many of our students have already exhausted the most challenging curriculum in their home school and their high school, and they're looking for something else. They don't always know what that something else is.

They're in 10th grade, 11th grade — they're not necessarily thinking about college yet, but when we find them, they recognize that what they're looking for is a greater challenge of the kind that college affords. And that's where the conversation begins.

RUTH HAMMOND: But how do you find them? There are a lot of kids like that around the country, but you're a small college in Massachusetts. How do you find all those students?

IAN BICKFORD: That's a great question. We're out on the road, we're visiting high schools. We have strong relationships with counselors and teachers across the country. But I have say, some of it is — as I think all admission representatives will recognize — is more up to the fates than we would like.

That is to say, oftentimes a teacher will know something about Simon's Rock and suggest to a student, Why don't you check them out? The fact that teacher is standing there makes all the difference in the life of that student. And so it's part of our challenge to become more known in high schools across the country.

RUTH HAMMOND: And these teachers are ready to say to a sophomore, You seem kind of restless for the college experience. Why don't you think about this?

IAN BICKFORD: Yeah, I would say teachers are really our greatest allies here. That is, they're the first to recognize that they have a student who's working outside of the norm. Often, other professionals in education or parents — they see a straight path from 9th grade to college.

And it's teachers who are really seeing students start to ask questions beyond what a prescribed curriculum will support and to think beyond what that individual teacher's course is covering. And so teachers — they care enormously. And so they're often looking for new opportunities for their students.

RUTH HAMMOND: So you have a reputation for being very diverse with income, race, ethnicity. And also being especially welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender students. So how did you gain that profile? And how do you maintain it?

IAN BICKFORD: Yeah, I had a student say to me the other day that Simon's Rock is the first place that she experienced a kind of radical acceptance as a queer student. And I asked her, Why? And she said, Well, you know, the first thing I noticed is that the restrooms in the classroom buildings are gender inclusive. Nobody makes a big deal about that. It's not announced or broadcast, it simply is. And it was the first signal to her that here was a place that might understand who she is and want her there.

She went on to say that there's a correlation between the younger age of our students and the kind of inclusion that she was experiencing for the first time, which is that many students — whether LGBTQ or not — are coming out of context where they felt they didn't fit, right? So I really think that the inherently inclusive nature of our institution comes first from the students, then we follow.

RUTH HAMMOND: OK. In regard to the age of your students — the average age of 16, right?

IAN BICKFORD: That's right, the average age of entry, yeah.

RUTH HAMMOND: And so you, as a leader of the institution, you deal with something that most college presidents don't, that you actually do have this in loco parentis responsibility.

IAN BICKFORD: That's true, yeah.

RUTH HAMMOND: And how do you deal with that? How is your college different because of that?

IAN BICKFORD: Yeah that's interesting — it's interesting. The first thing to emphasizes is the Simon's Rock is a college in earnest. The experience our students have when they come to campus is a college experience. There's some modifications — it's a dry campus because many of our students are underage. But we are inviting them into the kinds of freedom and responsibility that one would expect from college life. At the same time, we offer substantial support in the dormitories and also in the classroom that acknowledges the younger age of our students. Acknowledges some of their specific and additional needs.

So we have a large residential staff, we have older students serving in a peer-advocacy role in the dormitories, and we have — let's say, a more robust than average advising system with faculty. So faculty are very involved in the lives of their students.

I will say, though, this is the direction that most colleges and universities are going. That is, toward more academic and social support in classrooms and dormitories. So in some ways I feel like by nature of the early, we're also, in some way, in advance of the trends of higher education, generally. That is to say, in doing college with greater support, we simply think we're doing college in the right way.

RUTH HAMMOND: OK. And so the faculty play a larger role beyond the classroom. So how do you recruit faculty like that, who are going to fit with that type of institution?

IAN BICKFORD: Yeah, so I have a long relationship to Simon's Rock — I was a student there, I was a member of the faculty there. And I've often wondered why it is our faculty are so uniformly wonderful — they really are. And I think part of it is that, to entertain the premise that younger students of conventionally high-school age can be ready for college work, you have to be a nuanced and flexible thinker yourself about the norms of education. And you have to be willing to step outside of the — as our students do — the conventional path of higher education.

So what that means is, we have faculty who are extremely strong in their fields. They also — I find them egoless in a really interesting way. They're willing to spend substantial parts of their day and week with 16-year-olds, either in academic or emotional urgency. And I think that within higher education takes a very special kind of person.

RUTH HAMMOND: Yes. Is it similar to a boarding-school teacher in some ways?

IAN BICKFORD: That might be, yeah. We also, though — we feel that it's extremely important that for students who are academically ready, they're in classrooms with subject experts. We feel like that's the formula. They're kind people, caring people, but they also — whatever students throw at them, whatever questions they're asking, these professors are ready to answer.

RUTH HAMMOND: So what kind of changes — now that you've become provost in January, I believe — what kind of changes do you want to bring about at this campus?

IAN BICKFORD: Well, one is well really under way. So at Simon's Rock — where we founded and inaugurated this idea that younger students are often ready for college earlier than the norm — for the first time, we're adding a 9th- and 10th-grade program. A boarding program on our campus.

So the structure of Simon's Rock now, I describe it as a six-year arc. So students — a six-year arc, built of three two-year programs. So 9th and 10th grade, Bard Academy; an associate's-degree program, where many of our students stay after they earn the associate's degree — many transfer; and a B.A. program.

And so students can enter at various points; they can commence at various points. So they can come in after the eighth grade. They can come in after the 10th or 11th grade. They can transfer after the associate's degree. They can stay on for our bachelor's degree.

And so this is our first year of the Bard Academy program. And so a priority at Simon's Rock is developing that six-year arc, which in itself is, I believe, unique in American education.

RUTH HAMMOND: So if this is such a great idea, why aren't more people doing it?

IAN BICKFORD: Well, they all are. And this is the interesting thing — I believe that we're reaching a tipping point where families are considering not only where to go to college, but also when to go to college. Next year 40 percent of students who start college will start at a nontraditional age. It's a growing number, and a growing percentage of that number are younger, not older, nontraditional students.

So when members of the administration at Bard and Simon's Rock founded the first Bard High School Early College — modeled after the Simon's Rock program — in New York City, there were only a handful of early-college-entrance programs in the country. Now there are more than 300.

RUTH HAMMOND: OK. Well, thank you so much for being here. And we were happy to have you here at The Chronicle as part of our On Leadership series.

IAN BICKFORD: It's great to be here. Thank you.

RUTH HAMMOND: Thank you.