Simon's Rock Experience?
April 9, 2010 11:49 AM   Subscribe

MeFites' experiences as a student, professor or administrator with Bard College at Simon's Rock ("The Early College")?

My 16-year-old son has been offered a very generous merit scholarship, and he's very enthusiastic about going. We're delighted, but a bit apprehensive because this is such an atypical academic track.

Has anyone else had any experience good/bad with this school or this kind of program at other schools?
posted by anonymous to Education (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Someone I knew in college had gone to an early college program at a different school (a women's college in Virginia). My impression was that she had benefited academically, and was a little behind socially, as a result of starting college at 15 or 16. In her case, being "behind socially" took the form of being awkwardly overconfident, thinking of herself as being really hot stuff, in a way that was sometimes offputting. Basically I think she missed out on some of the self-esteem-killing social learning aspects of high school, so it's hard to say whether it was a good thing (skipping that bad awkward period) or a bad thing (because it made her a little out of step with others). Also in her case, I think the program she entered was smaller than the one at Simon's Rock so the "you are a very special snowflake" message was probably reinforced more strongly for her. From what I saw of her at age 18 or so, she seemed very happy.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:20 PM on April 9, 2010

One of my friends' siblings attended there. It was a lifesaver for her, as she wasn't interested in traditional high school and wasn't doing well in many aspects of her life. She discovered artwork, which she then got an MFA in and still practices.

I'm sure you're not the first parents with these questions - can you call the admissions department and ask for some alumni names to call? Of course they will likely be alumni who are favorable to the school, but that doesn't mean they won't be honest, and you'll learn a lot just by talking to them.
posted by Miko at 12:29 PM on April 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know several people who went to Simon's Rock and another who went to a similar program at Reed. I'd rather ask them than speak for them but my impression is that they found it a worthwhile experience. All have gone on to careers they enjoy (though probably not the ones they expected). I also grew up near Simon's Rock and would be happy to answer questions about the area. Feel free to MeMail me!
posted by Songdog at 12:34 PM on April 9, 2010

I have a friend who went to Simon's Rock, and like Songdog I would rather not speak for them. However, my impression was that there were some social dramas and such, but academically she has excelled and will be receiving a PhD from her current grad school later this year.
posted by asciident at 12:38 PM on April 9, 2010

I did my undergrad at the University of Southern California which has a similar program; kids skip their senior year of high school and head off early. They were all housed in the same residence halls as the scholarship kids (many were scholarship kids), so I knew a lot of them and was friends with one or two. In general, they did just fine. Most of them hadn't had too great a time in high school and really enjoyed the academic challenges, expanded freedom and new social opportunities. Occasionally they were very very bright but had pretty severe social issues...but the same could be said for a lot of the regular students on full scholarships.

There were a few outliers who did not deal with the freedom well at all and pretty much spiraled out of control their whole first year- lots of binge drinking and other stupid choices which combined to tank their grades and eventually get them kicked out. That's my only caveat, however. If you and your son feel that he's mature enough to handle it, and he's cool with missing the social stuff that goes along with the senior year of high school, it could be a really great opportunity.

There are a lot of pre-college forums out there, and you might get better/more specific feedback in one of them. Try this for a start.
posted by charmedimsure at 12:44 PM on April 9, 2010

I did a summer program at Simon's Rock and considered both them and Mary Baldwin (the women's college in Virginia) for full-term academic programs. Ultimately it would have been too expensive, but if the scholarship is generous I would consider it. Everyone I know who started college a little early (versus a lot early, child prodigy style) is more or less normal. Simon's Rock did strike me as very hippie/airy-fairy, but if he's a liberal or fine arts type he might enjoy it.

I understand that they have a good record for transferring students to Ivies after two years, so if he decides not to stick around, it shouldn't hurt him.
posted by amber_dale at 12:54 PM on April 9, 2010

A good friend of mine attended Simon's Rock a little more than ten years ago. She had the following to say, but acknowledges things may be different in some ways now:

"They could use a lot more support for the mental and emotional health of students, but it was still a lot better than high school. Also the academics are incomparable. You get a hell of an education there. It's an excellent academic experience and for a lot of us, it was the first time interacting with peers who 'got' us. And although they could use more student support services, it's overall a good place to be."

The "us" she refers to were kids who were super-duper smart, but didn't fit in well socially or academically at their regular high schools.

The only bit of advice as a Bard College alumna I have regarding this is that many of the people I knew who came to Bard from Simon's Rock transferred out of Bard after a semester or a year. I would say if your son attends Simon's Rock, he should not consider Bard itself for completing his Bachelor's degree and he should look at other schools and definitely attend a college that is not Bard.
posted by zizzle at 1:01 PM on April 9, 2010

My husband started normal college at barely 17. It was a little awkward getting legal so much later than everyone else since it was a very "drinking" campus, but he thrived academically, graduated, took a year off, went to law school ... met me, got married, became the happiest man alive, you know, the usual story. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:04 PM on April 9, 2010

I have several friends who are alumni of Simon's Rock. They universally adored it. They're all highly-intellectual types -- some chronic overachievers, some chronic underachievers -- who hated high school and found Simon's Rock to be a haven. (None of them went to Bard for more than a semester, if at all.)
posted by desuetude at 2:12 PM on April 9, 2010

Someone I knew in college had gone to an early college program at a different school (a women's college in Virginia). My impression was that she had benefited academically, and was a little behind socially, as a result of starting college at 15 or 16. In her case, being "behind socially" took the form of being awkwardly overconfident, thinking of herself as being really hot stuff, in a way that was sometimes offputting. Basically I think she missed out on some of the self-esteem-killing social learning aspects of high school[...]

That's interesting; I've occasionally noticed the same traits in people who were homeschooled, enough for me to think there was a correlation.
posted by dfan at 2:13 PM on April 9, 2010

My best friend since fourth grade goes there now, and I attended Bard College proper for 2.5 years (am now a senior at SUNY Albany). I consider myself quite well-schooled in the ups and downs of a Bard education.

First thing you have to realize is that it is a VERY small, VERY remote community. The entire school has well under a thousand students. It is not in a city, though it is not terribly far from Great Barrington, MASS. Things to think about with such a situation:

-A small community is one in which everyone knows each other. This can be good: it's not terribly likely that your son will feel marginalized/left out. On the other hand, if he does it could be very isolating. For this reason, peer pressure can be more of an issue, because the stakes may be higher.

-A small community is also one in which privacy can be an issue. More on this later, but suffice it to say that if your son needs a place where h can "get lost in a crowd," Simon's Rock might not be the place to do it.

In addition, this is a small community with a very wide range of ages. Though some students enter SR at 16, some enter at 17 or 18. This means that your son will definitely be going to school with people 4 or even 5 year older than him-- obviously a potential risk. At the same time, this could be an excellent opportunity for your son to gain a mentor who is on the same academic/professional track that he is.

In terms of academics:

Bard (both SR and the College proper have Leon Botstein as president) has a fairly unique take on academics. Courses tend to be heavy on materials written by influential theorists, as opposed to textbooks or anthologies. I found this one of the best parts of my Bard experience, and I think my friend would agree. I am MUCH better than most of my peers at SUNY Albany at articulating and developing my ideas, and I am certain I owe this to all of the theory I was exposed to at Bard.

The general academic environment at Bard is also very good for some people. You have to maintain your own focus, but if you can do that, you can get very deep into your field of interest. If your son is a dreamer or a thinker, he will fit in at Simon's Rock. He will get tons of support and develop close relationships with his teachers. This is something I really miss about Bard now that I am at a state school with 18000 people.

That said, there aren't that many teachers because it is so small a school, and some of the social science departments (sociology for instance) are rather understaffed.

The food is terrible. Like, abjectly.

In terms of SR being an atypical academic track, you're right! That's not necessarily a bad thing though, especially if your son is an atypical guy. As Miko noted, for some it is an absolute lifesaver. It is absolutely true that your son will have a hundred times more intellectual, social and creative latitude than he would have at almost any high school and even most colleges or universities. However, others can and have been overwhelmed with the distractions that are available at SR as they are on any college campus. 16 is pretty young: it would probably be worth it to have a serious conversation with him about his maturity level going into this.

Final thought: it is not uncommon for SR students to transfer to a more typical institution after the first couple years. I say he should go for it! A Bard education is a crazy, harrowing, amazing experience that few people get to have. We live in a world that definitely needs dreamers.

PS. MeMail me if you have any more questions.
posted by Truthiness at 2:52 PM on April 9, 2010

Quite a number of my closet friends went to Simon's Rock, albeit about 20 years ago, and all of them apparently had a wonderful time there. Can't honestly speak to the academic credentials of the place, but socially it seems wonderful. Seems to have an incredibly tight and active alumni scene, for whatever that's worth.
posted by Aversion Therapy at 4:46 PM on April 9, 2010

I went to Simon's Rock at 15, and graduated after four years with a BA. At the time I was there, I think about 2/3 of the class would transfer to another college after they got their AA from Simon's Rock; the graduating class after four years was only about 50. Students have transferred to all sorts of colleges to get their BA, bringing most if not all of their credits along, so you can certainly end up with a normal resume if that's what you want.

The key thing to understand is that Simon's Rock is college. (They tell you that over and over again, and most parents don't believe it.) It's not like prep school, and it's not like getting to take college classes early. What it's most like is being 18 and going to any other tiny, rural, liberal arts school.

So, is that what your son wants?

On the academic side, expect an average of three hours of class a day, scheduled anywhere between 8 am and 5 pm, with lots of homework. The classes are mostly electives; you don't have to take more than one semester of math unless math is your thing. The electives will have interesting names and odd themes, and whatever subject they're on, you'll probably end up reading work by two theorists and then writing an essay comparing them. If you take classes with easy professors, class will be easy; hard professors will kick your ass.

On the social side, there will be very little supervision. I mean, about the extent of adult supervision is that during the first year, it will take minor subterfuge to stay in the girls' dorm after midnight. Other than that, outside of the three hours of class a day, you'll mostly see grownups only when you want to see them. (Similarly, if you don't show up for class, you won't get detention, you'll just risk getting dropped from the class and not graduating on time.) There are great academic and social advisors, but no one will make you talk to them. (The administration would probably describe the situation differently, but this was my perception.)

With that background, let me talk about what it was like. For me, Simon's Rock was a godsend -- an epiphany. The fundamental message was that it was time to take responsibility for my education. 17-year-olds used to marry and go off to war; now we make them wait quietly in high school classes until the bell rings, even if the teacher has run out of things to say. We make them carry passes to walk down the hall to the bathroom.

Simon's Rock told me, it's your job to show up for class; it's your job to do the homework; it's your job to decide what classes to take next semester; it's your job to come back to class after taking a leak. If you can do it, you get a first-class education. If you don't, you waste your time and money, and you can start again next year or try something else. That meant for the first time in my life I was in classes with people who wanted to be there, who were ready to work hard in order to learn. It was like coming out of the darkness.

So in conclusion: if your son is (a) not at one of the rare high schools that are about more than marking time; (b) frustrated by that; (c) ready to handle the responsibility; and (d) doesn't mind having a new social life defined by 300 awesome people in the middle of nowhere, then yes, do it. Today.

Having made my sales pitch, here's a couple of specific points:

- I don't think Simon's Rock is a compromise academically. For what it's worth, my dad went to four years of high school, hated it, went to Harvard and had such a bad attitude he dropped out after a year and a half. He says that my classes were on a par with his, but that he would have learned a lot more if he hadn't been burned out by four years of high school first. (Of course, it's certainly possible to go and not learn anything -- I recommend the studio art classes for that, based on my extensive use of them.) It's an accredited college, and graduates go on to get into all manner of top-tier grad programs, so it's not seen as a false credential on your resume.

- It's worth noting that people also go and then have trouble. I was a kid who was bored by high school, so I did all my homework on the bus, got As, and then spent time on other things. My little brother was a kid who was bored by high school, so he didn't do the homework -- and then he didn't have the skills to do the homework at Simon's Rock and cope with all the social distractions, and dropped out after a year. (He then worked for a year at a video store, decided education was important, went back to Simon's Rock and made dean's list. So I'm not saying that was necessarily a bad choice for him.) You do have to think clearly about whether this is a responsibility you're ready to live up to.

Please, please memail me if you'd like to talk more about this. I can also put you in touch with my brother, who's currently a junior.
posted by jhc at 9:02 AM on April 10, 2010

Like jhc, I'm a Simon's Rock alumni. I was bored stiff by my high school, and completely socially stifled, so SRC was a godsend for me. It wasn't a perfect god send, but I'm pretty sure it saved me from at least a fairly serious suicide attempt.

The academics there are amazing,the community can be fantastic, and the alumni network is outstanding.

However... as mentioned, it's far from perfect. It's really isolated, and around February it gets really claustrophobic sometimes. The extremely small student population makes the place a social pressure cooker, the rumor mill is remarkably thorough, and breakups simply must be played out publicly. There can be almost no privacy in some ways. And there isn't always enough outreach from the staff/faculty to students who seem to be struggling.

There's also a real divide in the student body, although it's subtle, and doesn't tend to manifest until well after graduation. There are students who're simply using Simon's Rock as a stepping stone, and transfer out after two years, or even less. Then there are the folks for whom SRC fills a fundamental need, and the place seeps into their bones. I'm one of the latter.

I'll gladly answer any questions you have... please feel free to contact me. I also have a long association with the school, as I entered in 1996 and finished my BA there in 2008. I wasn't actively taking classes the entire time, though. ;o)
posted by daveqat at 8:18 AM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Simon's Rock alum here. I graduated in 1998. I like jhc's summary of the place. It's my impression that most Simon's Rockers learn that, above all, if there is something they want to learn, they can learn it. I'm in a fairly techy field, and ten years ago Simon's Rock had no resources for learning anything related to my field. But I learned how to learn, which is something that is rare among the students I have taught at another small, expensive liberal arts college.

One thing that is great about these small schools is the interactions that you have with professors and other students. You will never get the attention from a professor at another school like you will Simon's Rock. The focus on writing simply cannot be taught at other schools where there are more than 30 students in a class and professors have an active research program and teaching assistants to handle the grading. And with respect to the student interactions, many of my closest friends went to Simon's Rock (some of them even attended at a different time). Simon's Rockers tend to marry other Simon's Rockers (as I did). This isn't unique to Simon's Rock, but it is extremely valuable in terms of having connections with people all over the country doing interesting things with their lives.

With respect to the 'unconventional' track -- it either helps or it doesn't matter. I know lots of Simon's Rockers who just tell everyone they went to Bard, which is basically true. No one can tell from looking at my resume that I started college when I was 16. It was slightly irritating to be compared to Doogie Hawser back in the day, thank god that's over. Best of luck to you and your son. I think Simon's Rock is an excellent school.
posted by stinker at 5:14 PM on May 11, 2010

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