Bard College Spearheads Tuition-Free “Microcollege” Program for Single Mothers

For many of us who supported Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary last year, one of the cornerstones of his campaign sounded like a dream come true: Sanders proposed free college tuition for everyone, a legislative goal that he continues to work toward in Congress. Despite Sanders’s efforts (alongside Senator Elizabeth Warren), the Trump administration’s vow to cut, not expand education funding unfortunately makes this dream feel further and further from reality. But as a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor explains, Bard College, in conjunction with a Holyoke, Mass., social services organization called The Care Center, has given us one (micro) glimmer of hope.

They call it a “microcollege.” It is designed to provide a group of young single mothers already involved with The Care Center (which provides alternative secondary schooling and helps students complete their GEDs) the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree in Liberal Arts from Bard. As Josh Kentworthy writes in The Christian Science Monitor:

Last August, The Care Center, in partnership with Bard College, launched the first nationally accredited “microcollege,” a selective two-year liberal arts associate’s degree program that admits a tight-knit cohort of about 20 Care Center high school graduates each semester. The center provides the young mothers with the same supports – including transportation, health care, child care, and counseling – designed to allow them to focus on one thing that will keep them and their children out of poverty: a degree.

Free tuition, health and child care, transportation, and counseling? It may sound too good to be true. But the program is financially feasible through a combination of Pell Grants and private donations, and the fact that Bard instructors teach on site at the Care Center’s existing facilities keep overhead low. And while some may question the practicality of a liberal arts degree (not this proud English major, mind you), the leaders behind the microcollege tell Kentworthy that they believe it’s the best type of degree for the program:

“When people say ‘what people in poverty need is a skill’… that really is code for 'what they really need is to be trained for low-income jobs’,” says Anne Teschner, executive director of The Care Center. But “the leading industries around here are insurance, higher ed., and medical…and all of those industries need people who have the skills that you gain through the liberal arts.”

Bard College has had success in this area before, as the college has long been a leader in innovative liberal arts education. Initiatives include Bard College at Simon’s Rock and similar Early College programs, which allow high school juniors to move into college level courses, and also the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), which provides the opportunity for incarcerated men and women to earn a rigorous Bard degree. The overwhelming success of the BPI, which now boasts 300 full time students across six prisons and has inspired comparable programs in 16 states, has given many reason to be optimistic about the microcollege program and its potential to grow. Kentworthy writes,

At the core of the model, says [BPI founder Max] Kenner, is the conviction that “unconventional” students can achieve what academics often say is impossible. That conviction comes, he says, from the success stories of BPI alumni. In 2015, a team of three of its inmates beat a team of Harvard undergraduates in a debate. Last year, some BPI alumni earned graduate degrees from Columbia, Yale, and New York University. He says many go back to local communities to work in social services and public health.

As for the microcollege’s first batch of students, they have positive things to tell The Christian Science Monitor as year one draws to a close.

“They actually care,” says [student Coralys] Perez about the center’s approach. “They try to do their best to take those problems out of the way so you can actually focus in class.”

While we have a long way to go until a college education is truly accessible to all, we can’t take for granted these types of programs. Though small, they have the power to transform communities and to chip away at the gulf between the rich and the poor, which can sometimes seem, especially in these turbulent times, insurmountable.

To read more, check out the full article in The Christian Science Monitor.

photo credit: The Care Center