Bard College at Simon’s Rock offers students something different from the conventional path.
In the quiet calm of a mostly empty classroom, two young women are chatting about Galileo. They have arrived early to their First-Year Seminar—a wide-ranging humanities survey taken by incoming students at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington—and are puzzling together over the meaning of Galileo’s astronomical treatise, “The Starry Messenger.” Neither student is sure what to make of the work, so Brianna Berman, a lively, dark-haired young woman, asks her classmate to listen to an essay she wrote in response to the night’s assignment. While she is reading, a dozen other teenagers spill into the classroom. Most of them are also talking about the assignment. When the professor, Brendan Mathews, arrives, the discussion becomes more focused but no less animated.
As an observer in this classroom, two things strike me as unusual: First, the pre-class chatter is all about the reading as opposed to, well, the things you expect college students to talk about when the professor isn’t in the room. Second, the students seem at once unusually engaged and unusually young. Like Berman, most are just 16 or 17 years old. They have skipped the last year or two of high school to start their college studies early—part of a Simon’s Rock tradition that originated here 50 years ago this summer.
In 1964, a dynamic educator named Elizabeth Blodgett Hall had recently resigned as headmistress of Concord Academy, an independent school outside of Boston. Home in Great Barrington to care for aging parents, she had the idea to begin a new school, one that would address one of her greatest concerns—“the weaknesses that I saw in the transition from the last years of high school to the first years of college,” as she said in a 1994 interview.
Hall toyed with the idea for a year, and then, on a hot, summer day in 1964, her mother offered Hall a gift of land and money to begin the new institution, which was incorporated later that year as Simon’s Rock, Inc., after a rock on the hillside where Hall and her friends played as children. It opened in 1966, as a women’s school combining the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. The first class graduated with associate’s degrees in 1970.
As befits a product of the turbulent 1960s, the school’s name, student makeup, and educational offerings would all change dramatically in its first 15 years. By 1970, the school was co-ed. By 1974, it had eliminated the high-school component entirely—students simply skip the last year or two—and begun granting bachelor’s degrees. By 1979, it had become part of Bard College in Annandale, New York. Over the years, Simon’s Rock became Simon’s Rock College, then Simon’s Rock College of Bard, and most recently, Bard College at Simon’s Rock. (The college remains known colloquially as Simon’s Rock or, among alumni, the Rock.)
Throughout the changes in its nearly 50 years, the college’s founding principle has remained the same: Sometimes students need something different from the conventional path. Simon’s Rock does not fit neatly into any familiar educational category. It is not a boarding school, an alternative high school, or a junior college. It combines a collegiate learning environment—with faculty who are experts in their field, and the expectation of academic independence—with the social supports needed by younger students.
Today, Simon’s Rock enrolls some 375 students and offers 40 possible majors. Half of arriving freshmen will choose to spend two years here, earn an associate’s degree, and then transfer, usually to a larger institution, at the same time their former high-school classmates begin college. Most others stay four years and earn their bachelor’s degree in a program that culminates with a year-long senior thesis. Several will take part in a five-year engineering program—students spend three years in Great Barrington and two in New York, and earn joint degrees from Simon’s Rock and Columbia University.
I got to know the college in 2011 when my partner, Peter Laipson, became provost. Before we arrived, I thought the school’s most defining quality would be the students’ young ages, but I soon learned why professors and students see age as less important than attitude. What makes Simon’s Rock students unique, say alumni and professors, isn’t so much their youth as their desire for intellectual and creative engagement and their willingness to step off the beaten path to find it.
That engagement is a critical part of the college’s identity, says Loren AliKhan, a 2003 graduate who now serves as Deputy Solicitor General for Washington, D.C. “What I liked about Simon’s Rock is that everybody made a deliberate choice to be there,” she says. “That manifested itself in profound ways. Students were engaged in class because they wanted to be there. Socially, it creates a life of the mind.”
For professors, the students’ enthusiasm makes for a rich teaching environment. “They want to be there and they want to do well,” says Eden-Renee Hayes, a professor of psychology. Hayes, who previously taught traditional-age college students, says she had some misgivings about the idea of “early college” before she interviewed, but her concerns soon evaporated. Like AliKhan, she thinks that because Simon’s Rock students make a deliberate choice to leave high school, they bring a determination and engagement that is unusual among today’s college students, whatever their age. “From a professor’s standpoint, it’s definitely a dream to have academically motivated students,” says Hayes, whose research focuses on race, class, and gender.
Virtually all Simon’s Rock faculty have doctorates or the highest degree in their fields. A film star, Fulbright fellows, publishing authors, visual and performing artists, and National Science Foundation grantees have taught here, bringing expertise to their close work with students and often involving students in their research.
As students tell it, the accomplished faculty and intellectual engagement are part of the draw, but there’s also the chance to be around others driven more by ideas than by prom dresses and SAT scores. Brianna Berman, the student reading aloud about Galileo, says she came to Simon’s Rock partly because she wants to study music and had run out of options in her Red Hook, New York, high school. But the unique social environment was also part of the draw. “Everyone here is passionate. We all have something that inspires us, drives us, or that we obsess over,” says Berman, who plays violin in the college’s chamber ensemble.
The willingness to step outside pre-established boundaries and norms is apparent throughout the ranks of Simon’s Rock best-known alumni. These include Ethan and Joel Coen, Oscar-winning creators of films such as Raising Arizona, Fargo, and True Grit; Alison Bechdel, author and illustrator of genre-defying graphic memoirs; and Internet entrepreneur Eli Pariser, a founder of the website Upworthy, which New York recently hailed as “one of the fastest-growing media sites in Internet history.” Then there’s Ronan Farrow, who entered Simon’s Rock at age 11 (as a day student) and now, at age 26, with a Rhodes Scholarship and Yale Law degree under his belt, has built a career as an activist, journalist, government advisor, and talk-show host. In the last three years, six Simon’s Rock alumni have been named to Forbes’s annual “30 under 30” list, a remarkable figure.
Many alumni keep their talents here in the Berkshires, including the founders of both the Berkshire Fringe theater festival and the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Others venture far beyond the region and for some, graduating from college young is as appealing as starting young. Todd Farrell, who graduated in 2004, thinks finishing college at age 20 gave him more time to try different things. “I had a little extra time. I didn’t have to jump into a career,” says Farrell, who came to Simon’s Rock when he ran out of math classes to take in high school. After finishing, he spent some time working in Boston and lived abroad before earning his PhD at MIT. Now in Palo Alto, Farrell works in venture capital, focusing on companies in the field of synthetic biology.
Providing a college education when students are ready for it, rather than automatically after 12th grade, is both a defining aspect of Simon’s Rock and its greatest challenge. Admissions officers look for students at a time when students are not yet looking for colleges. Most who find their way to the Rock do so by word of mouth—by Google searches on phrases like “what to do if you are bored in high school,” or by the brochure that they happened to notice on a guidance counselor’s wall—not by sitting down and making a careful list of the ten or 20 schools to which they will apply.
Perhaps because the path here isn’t an obvious one, students and alumni exhibit remarkable devotion, as was evident on a snowy day in February. It was one of the many days last winter when schools closed, businesses shut early, and the winds howled. But Simon’s Rock was conducting a search for a new economics professor and one candidate was already on campus, planning to teach a sample class. Even though the college was technically closed, the class went forward, and ten students, from first-years to seniors, made their way through the thick drifts to attend.
Shaking the snow off their jackets, these determined students demonstrated precisely the sort of engagement Elizabeth Blodgett Hall worried was missing among the students of her day—and precisely what she set out to nurture when she first dreamed up the oft-re-named place now known as Bard College at Simon’s Rock.