Gotham Gazette

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I Started College at 16; Many Other Students Can Too

DOE Chancellor Banks at Bard High School Early College (photo: @BHSEC)

Although prom, soccer games, and spirit weeks are all memorable parts of my high school experience, my favorite time of the year takes place two weeks before the semester ends; course selection. Each semester, 300 students in the 11th and 12th grades refresh their mailboxes, eagerly awaiting the pamphlet filled with all the college courses that will be offered the following semester. 

I attend Bard High School Early College Queens, so in addition to 17 filled notebooks, I will leave with a high school diploma, an associate degree, and 60 transferable college credits - all free of cost. But my biggest takeaway from this unique high school will be my experiences in college classes.

When walking to my seminar class, I always hear the chirping of crickets or hissing of snakes from the animal behavior class in the lab. In my freshman year literature class, my professor changed the final for the class to reflect the civil rights protests that were occurring at the moment. The decision was impactful for many students, especially those of color, and made them feel seen in the classroom. I recently took a course on the Harlem Renaissance and more often than not, the conversations in class would lead to similar discussions about modern day social issues.

Once we complete traditional high school classes in our freshmen and sophomore years, our college courses in junior and senior years do not adhere to standardized curriculum and testing, and professors create their own syllabi, class materials, and assessments. At Bard High School Early College Queens, professors teach both high school and college-level courses, and 97% of the faculty have a doctorate in the area that they teach. Not only does this result in 90-minute conversations about 20 pages in a book, but my teachers are always open to discussion outside designated class times.

The flexible curriculum and an education that is not isolated from the outside world are two of my favorite parts of the early college model, and the ability to have control over courses of study keeps students extremely motivated.

More importantly, early college instills a sense of belonging in students, especially those who are typically underrepresented in academia. Early college plays an active role in making college an expectation rather than an option for all students. Students who are first-generation college goers or from low-income backgrounds stop viewing college as a daunting prospect because their first two years of college are in a familiar environment. At my school in Queens and the Bard High School Early College in Manhattan, 50% of the 1,284 member student population is first generation American and 70% are low-income. 

By the time they graduate and go on to another institution, they have already been exposed to a college environment and have the confidence to continue their studies. In fact, Bard Manhattan and Queens have the highest on-time bachelor’s degree completion for low-income students of all public schools in New York State.

It is no surprise that the early college model has become increasingly common across the country, with similar positive outcomes on graduation rates, college enrollment and degree completion. Taking courses without having to worry about cost or practicality helps reinforce that college is not just for career preparation and networking, but is also a place to learn. The ability to interact with complex topics while still maintaining the innocence of being a teenager and living at home is a privilege that I will be eternally grateful for. 

I never thought I would be ready for college until I realized that I was already in one. I invite New York State and City leaders to make high school more memorable and meaningful at an earlier age by opening more of these schools, and provide thousands more young people the same life-changing opportunity that I am having.

Aarsha Joshi is a Year 1 student (Junior) at Bard High School Early College Queens and Student Fellow in Public Policy with Bard Early Colleges.

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