From the Library Journal.
Bard College, a private liberal arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, and Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) have partnered to launch a “microcollege”—an innovative undergraduate program for nontraditional students—at BPL’s Central Library in Prospect Heights. Bard at Brooklyn Public Library is designed to give the experience of attending a small, high-quality liberal arts college to students who have confronted barriers to continuing their education such as poverty, homelessness, foster care, and incarceration. The two-year program will culminate in an associate’s degree. Classes will kick off on January 16 with an initial cohort of 18 students. Bard faculty and outside instructors will teach seminars representing a broad arts and sciences curriculum, including lab sciences and remedial to advanced mathematics, with a focus on reading critically and writing effectively. The program will be funded by a $450,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, secured by BPL, as well as additional money raised by both Bard and BPL. Most students will have the bulk of their costs covered by Pell Grants. For those who don’t qualify for Pells, BPL has additional funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, but the program will be free for all students. Costs to Bard and BPL will be significantly lowered by holding classes at the library.
Serving Non-Traditional Students
The microcollege model emerged from the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program begun in 2001 that currently grants associate and bachelor’s degrees in six New York State correctional facilities. BPI enrolls more than 300 students, offering more than 165 courses per academic year as well as extracurricular activities designed “to replicate the breadth of college life and inquiry”—the BPI debate team from Eastern New York Correctional Facility in Ulster County defeated teams from both West Point and Harvard. In recent years, BPI’s mission has expanded to include the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, which supports and establishes college-in-prison programs in partnership with academic institutions nationwide. BPI’s office of Reentry and Alumni Affairs works with students after their release from prison; graduates have gone on to earn degrees from Columbia, Yale, and New York University as well as to find employment in the public and private sectors. “The success of those students gave us the sense that it was important for us to continue to push the envelope,” said Max Kenner, vice president for institutional initiatives and adviser to the president on public policy and college affairs at Bard, who helped create the BPI program as an undergraduate in 1999 and is now its executive director. As BPI grew and thrived, Kenner felt that Bard should extend the work it was doing in prisons—“full-scholarship, full-time undergraduate study for adult learners who are otherwise excluded or isolated from the university experience or whose education has been deterred for one reason or another”—to other settings. The first microcollege, a collaboration between Bard and the Care Center in Holyoke, MA, a nonprofit serving low-income mothers, launched in August 2016. The Care Center helps young mothers earn high school diplomas, offering on-site day care, food, mental health counseling, and transportation. According to executive director Anne Teschner, although 75 percent of the Care Center’s graduates go on to college, only about 15 percent finish. The two-year microcollege program gives them the opportunity and extra support they need to earn a 60-credit associate of arts degree, tuition-free. The first cohort of graduates will walk at Bard’s commencement this spring. “Too many of our elite colleges have an extremely narrow view of who a college student is meant to be,” Kenner said in a Chronicle of Higher Education article on Microcollege Holyoke. “We’ve lost faith that ordinary Americans are capable of the work we value most.”
Partnering With BPL
Kenner felt that New York City would be a prime location for the next microcollege, with a wide range of potential students and ties to Bard’s alumni community. Kenner brought the idea to a number of social service institutions in the area. At the same time, BPL was looking at ways to expand its educational work. The library offers extensive services in early childhood education and reading readiness, after-school and homework help, high school equivalency test assistance, and general test prep—“all of these things to promote lifelong learning,” noted BPL president and CEO Linda Johnson, “but we never did anything specifically in the realm of higher education.” A conversation with the president of Bard connected Johnson with Kenner at the beginning of 2017, and within days the two began jointly planning the program. Leadership at BPL, Kenner told LJ, “deserves an enormous amount of credit. They recognized the opportunity and understood the forward thinking potential of this idea instantly.” Each institution brings its strengths and expertise to the project. Bard will do much of the decision-making around admissions, with some input from BPL, and will provide the pedagogy and faculty. BPL will supply the campus, collections, library resources, and librarians to help students with resources, ensuring that its collections support the classwork and encouraging students to use the branch network outside of class. The library will also provide support such as computers, food, and transportation, as well as social services, since the students will face different challenges from those of typical college freshmen. Both Bard and BPL will offer support once the students graduate from the program, helping them find jobs or work toward a bachelor’s degree.
A “Diverse, Extraordinary” Class
Once the microcollege had received official accreditation from New York state and city, it was ready to begin the admissions process. Bard at BPL was not looking for a range of test scores or a particular GPA, but rather “ambitious and intellectually curious” applicants with high school diplomas. “We’re looking to put together a group of the most diverse, extraordinary group of people [who] represent the breadth of social life in New York City, whose educations have been deterred for one reason or another,” Kenner told LJ. “There will be veterans, working poor; there will be people who’ve graduated out of foster care. Less than we’re looking for any one quality in any one person, we’re looking to put together a group of people [who] will take this on together and really own this little college.” That Bard at BPL graduates will form a growing cohort also influences admissions. “We do expect them to be curious and open-minded and very hardworking, as individuals and collectively,” noted Kenner. Publicity for the program was kept low-key, with applications initially solicited by word-of-mouth. Bard held a series of Rethinking Higher Education lectures at BPL, which also served as open houses for the microcollege (including a lecture by Craig Steven Wilder, a senior fellow at BPI and professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he leads the MIT and Slavery initiative in collaboration with the university archives). The program had received between 80 and 100 applicants when the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the microcollege in October; within 72 hours, said Kenner, more than 1,000 applications had flooded in and administration had to close the process for the semester. Finalists for spots at Bard at BPL were required to come in to the Central Library and write an essay, and interview with admissions officers on site. Admission letters to the inaugural class went out in mid-December. Classes begin the day after Martin Luther King Day, with the whole cohort taking a series of core classes for its first semester before members branch out into elective choices. A second round of admissions for the fall semester will take place in the next few months.
The Campus Experience in Brooklyn
While libraries are no strangers to collaborations with higher education, most are with community or technical colleges—such as Columbus State Community College’s presence at the Columbus Metropolitan Library or the partnership between Carson City Library, NV, and Western Nevada College to offer advanced manufacturing certificates—or take the form of one-off classes or lecture series. Bard at BPL hopes to bring the private college experience to Brooklyn, complete with small, rigorous seminars and even a campus of sorts. “We don’t exactly have that,” explained Johnson, “but we are on Prospect Park, and we are next door to the Botanic Garden and the Brooklyn Museum. It really is like a campus here in the middle of Brooklyn.” She added, “If you’re familiar with our Central Library, you know that experience of walking up those steps is certainly similar to a small liberal arts school somewhere, that inspiring space.” Both Johnson and Kenner agree that the goal is to make the students’ college experience exceptional without being exclusionary, even if class size needs to be small. “We don’t want to fall back on the notion that excluding people somehow is a sign of success because we’re in such great demand,” explained Johnson. “In fact, we’re trying to figure out how to help students who didn’t get accepted—is there something we can do to keep them interested, perhaps even in applying again in the future if they were strong applicants but we didn’t have enough space?” Bard will consider partnerships on similar programs with other institutions—including libraries—in the future, but right now the focus is on growing Bard at BPL gradually. “We’re looking to roll this out deliberately and slowly,” he noted. “It’s going to be very small and we think it’s going to succeed because it exists on a human scale…. Right now we’re very focused on making this a really world-class learning institution.” “It’s an interesting approach, and it speaks volumes to what [BPL’s] mission is, which is to promote learning at every step of the way at whatever point a student or a patron comes to us,” Johnson told LJ. “If you’re illiterate and you’re learning to read, we’re here for you. But if [you’ve]…missed an opportunity to go to college, we’re here for you, too.” The program is funded in full for three years, but Johnson added, “We’re hoping it’s wildly successful and we’re in it for the long haul.”