Occupying an idyllic slice of the Berkshires is an early college school where students often joke about being the country’s best educated high school dropouts.
Just outside of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Simon’s Rock was created by Elizabeth Blodgett Hall, a former headmistress at the Concord Academy who came to believe that the last two years of high school were a dead zone for many bright, iconoclastic students, whom she believed were ready to begin real college work. Hall established Simon’s Rock on farmland her family owned and admitted the first class in 1966 – all girls, who entered after their sophomore year in high school and graduated four years later with Associate’s degrees. The school went co-ed in 1970 and by the mid-seventies had revamped its program to allow its young students to graduate with Associate’s degrees in just two years, with the option to stay (or “moderate,” in Simon’s Rock lingo) for a Bachelor’s two years later. In 1979, Simon’s Rock became affiliated with Bard College, and the school’s official name since 2007 has been Bard College at Simon’s Rock. It remains one of a kind, the only accredited four-year “early college” in America with a sole focus on younger students, refugees from high school.
Simon’s Rock is indubitably a college – an elite, private, New England college at that. Its campus is an amalgam of 19th century landmarks, concrete reminders of the 1970s, and recent LEED-certified green additions. Almost all of its 400 students live in dorms on campus, and they’re on a first-name basis with the 50 or so faculty and staff members. “Rockers,” as they are semi-affectionately known around the Berkshires, come from all over America and the world, and include both scholarship students and the very affluent. What they share in common is the experience of leaving high school after 10th or 11th grade, taking the GED, and then immersing themselves a world of college-level seminars and theses. Those who use their Simon’s Rock AA degrees to transfer into four-year colleges typically land in the Ivy League or its arts-oriented equivalent. Famous alumni include filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen (who supposedly were inspired to make The Big Lebowski after hanging out at The Cove bowling alley in Great Barrington) and Ronan Farrow, son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, who entered Simon’s Rock at age 11.
There is something slightly jarring about overhearing a group of 15-year-old girls – this one with purple hair, that one with a half-ironic Hello Kitty backpack, the third nervously puffing an American Spirit cigarette with one eye out for campus security – passionately debating the relative merits of reading Flaubert in French or English.
Simon’s Rock isn’t for the faint of heart – it has the intensity one would expect from the collision of smart, sensitive teens away from home for the first time on an intellectual quest. In 2013, the campus erupted in protests over the limits of free speech when a student began blogging against Diversity Day. The attrition rate between freshman and sophomore years can be quite steep, as teens who are accustomed to being the smartest people around for miles find themselves having to work really hard for decent grades. Some graduates with Bachelor’s degrees at age 19 report some skepticism among employers and landlords that they’re really ready for adult responsibilities.
“I don’t know what would have happened to me if it wasn’t for Simon’s Rock,” one student said, after asking to remain anonymous. Reflecting on her dual identity at her previous school as a top student and an incipient party girl, she added, “By the end of 10th grade, I was so done with high school, I’m pretty sure there was nothing good left there for me.”
The early college lifeline brings another Generation DIYer to the other side. Here’s three GenDIY women featured on Simon’s Rock Student Profile Gallery.
“I don’t have a set plan. I’m focused on design and photography, visual arts in general. I’m hoping to figure out what direction I want to take, but I haven’t felt any pressure to decide, which is a blessing. I don’t like being pushed in one direction. I want to take in as much as I can while I’m here. And if I decide in the next three months what I want to do, that’s great. But if not, that’s okay. I’m going to keep working and stay open to seeing what happens.” –Eva
“I went to a prep school with a strong science department. I took art classes there but it was never something that I thought I could pursue as a profession. When I came to Simon’s Rock I continued to take science classes and thought that would be my major. Then I took my first ceramics class and I was hooked. Now that’s my concentration. I think students sometimes limit themselves when thinking about what they should study, because of money. I’ve heard people say that they would go into the arts but can’t because they wouldn’t make money. I guess I’d rather live simply than do something I didn’t love.” –Nora
“I had been writing and performing songs since I was 11 or 12 years old. That’s part of the reason I didn’t want to stay in high school. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and even though the logistics and the details weren’t sorted out, I didn’t want to waste time—so I came to Simon’s Rock.” –Elana
Young people are taking control of their own pathway to careers, college and contribution. Powered by digital learning, “GenDIY” is combatting unemployment and the rising costs of earning a degree by seeking alternative pathways to find or create jobs they love. Follow their stories here and on Twitter at #GenDIY. For more on GenDIY, check out: