Bard College at Simon's Rock trying to balance quality, costs


Wednesday February 8, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- As it marks the 45th anniversary of its first graduating class, the nation's only "early college" offering two- and four-year liberal arts degrees for gifted students who have completed 10th or 11th grade is aiming to hold down tuition costs and better prepare students who may target engineering, science or technology careers in the digital age.

"We try to make it as affordable as we can," said Peter Laipson, in his eighth month as provost on the bucolic campus of Bard College at Simon's Rock. He is the former headmaster of the Concord Academy, an independent secondary school.

Nearly 90 percent of the 380 students receive some level of financial aid to help meet the $56,000 annual expense, including tuition, fees and residence charges.

"Like all colleges, we're thinking hard about whether we will increase next year," said Laipson during an interview in his office on Tuesday. "We recognize that even with the generous financial aid we're able to offer, it's burdensome to many families."

With an average classroom size of 15 and an 8-to-1 student-faculty ratio, he added, "that kind of person-intensive education is expensive because you're paying for people."

Like most academic institutions and nonprofits, the Great Recession has bitten deeply into the college's endowment, down to about $15 million now from its peak of just above $20 million in 2006, although some recovery is under way.

But, with support from major donors and alumni, Simon's Rock has expanded dramatically since 1998, having opened the Fisher Science and Academic Center, the Kilpatrick Athletic Center, the Daniel Arts Center and the Livingston Hall Student Union, among others.

Laipson's top priority is raising the profile, since he encounters many young people and adults who are unfamiliar with Simon's Rock.

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"Their faces light up and they say, ‘That would have been perfect for me when I was in high school,' but they just don't know about us, so that's an issue," he said.

"We offer this great liberal arts program," he went on. "What we want to do is help figure out connections with other programs that may be outside of us, either for students while they're here with us, or for the next step."

As an example, he mentioned a partnership with Columbia University -- a three-year bachelor's degree program at Simon's Rock followed by two years at Columbia for a bachelor's in engineering.

"Finding out more paths like that would be really good for our students," he said, adding that it's also important to get the word out about the success stories of the college's graduates.

"This campus is part of the larger national discussion about the value of a liberal arts education after you graduate," said Anne O'Dwyer, the school's dean of academic affairs since 1997.

"We don't prepare you for a specific job, but how does liberal arts prepare you for a dynamic, changing economy? In some ways, this is a larger conversation we're having on campus. We're not vocational, but how do we prepare students for careers?" she said.

The college remains steadfast in its commitment to the liberal arts, Laipson said.

"The conversation is partly about how we make the case for the liberal arts," he said. "Ninety percent of the careers that students will have access to when they graduate haven't been created yet."

With 380 students currently at the college, there's room for up to 45 more without risking overcrowding, O'Dwyer said. The campus is seeking to expand enrollment from a 14-county, four-state Berkshire-centered region through a scholarship program that offers a 40 percent tuition discount to qualified students.

To reach Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 496-6247.


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