mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Bard College Reinvents the Admissions Process


Bard College, a small liberal arts college in the Hudson Valley and academic home of WRM, is trying a singularly ambitious new plan for college admissions. Rather than relying on high school GPAs and SAT scores, future applicants will have the option of completing four research papers, 2,500 words long, on topics ranging from 17th-century poetry to microbial research. Professors will take a look at these papers, and if the student can earn a B+ or better, they’re in. The aim is to allow gifted, curious students who haven’t made the grade in high school, for whatever reason, to prove that they are ready for the rigors of college. As the New York Times reports:

“It’s kind of declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions and the failure to foreground the curriculum and learning,” Leon Botstein, Bard’s president of 38 years, said in an interview. Saying the prevailing system was “loaded with a lot of nonsense that has nothing to do with learning,” he hailed the new approach as a “return to basics, to common sense” and added, “You ask the young person: are they prepared to do university-level work?”

We’ve long believed that the key to education is rewarding students for what they learn and are willing to learn rather than how many hours they’ve spent sitting in class or how many activities they’ve managed to fit on their resumes. Unfortunately, much of our education system, at both the high school and college level, seeks to measure exactly that, rewarding students for sitting still and playing by the rules rather than intellectual curiosity and self-directed learning. Bard’s new application system dispenses with all that, allowing students to show what they know in the best possible way: by proving it directly.

This is an incredibly ambitious idea. Like everyone else, we have no idea whether it will work, but we certainly hope it will. Kudos to Bard for trying it out.

[Bard College image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

Features Icon
show comments
  • rheddles

    ” the key to education is rewarding students for what they learn and are willing to learn rather than how many hours they’ve spent sitting in
    class or how many activities they’ve managed to fit on their resumes”

    For what are government school teachers rewarded? As long as you have teachers whose rewards and remuneration are controlled by a union-government negotiated contract, expect little better.

  • Anthony

    What a great idea! If I know any young people who want to go to a great liberal arts college, I’m going to recommend Bard College.

    • Anthony

      And the fact that Professor Mead teachers there is also another reason to choose it.

      • Corlyss

        Are you saying that Bard doesn’t MOOS?

        • Anthony

          Yes, and I’d love to watch them if they were. Professor Mead is one of the best – and maybe the best – conservative public intellectuals in America. The fact that he occasionally takes issue with the excesses of the GOP – e.g., the “red dawn” series – only makes him more effective.

  • dan

    How does writing four research papers “PROVE that they are ready for the RIGORS of college”? In fact, the use of the word “rigors” suggests that college is a difficult, long haul, which in turn suggests that those who couldn’t “succeed” in high school (also often a difficult, long haul) MAY have a problem in college as well. “Prove” is much too strong. (And to weed out applicants using papers written by others would seem to require live interviews as well.)

    • Anthony

      Agreed, interviews to assess how much students understand what has been written are a must if this kind of plan is going to work. At Oxford University, for example, students have to read their papers out loud to their tutor, and have to respond to questions that test the student’s depth of knowledge.

      • Corlyss

        Are you a New Tricks fan, by any chance? There was an episode in 2010 that revolved around a professor who was thrown off the library building as it was being gutted and converted into a “learning center” with computers but no books. There’s a scene when the investigators are asked by a student to turn in his research paper to a professor the investigators are waiting to interview. When they hand over the paper, the professor scans it briefly. “This is better,” she nods approvingly. “Last time he didn’t even remove the tag line ‘for more information on our research papers, please contact . . “

  • John Stephens

    It’ll probably turn out to be racist, or something.

    • Corlyss

      I doubt it. Affirmative Action, Inc., will write the papers for the minorities.

  • Stacy Garvey

    What about cheating?
    The advantage of SAT is it’s pretty hard to cheat a timed, supervised standardized test.
    How will they know if the student actually wrote the papers him/herself?
    I predict a vast amount of gaming and cheating, but good luck with it.

    • Stacy Garvey

      Also, homeschoolers are going to dominate this process.

      • NCMountainGirl

        And that is a problem?

        • Corlyss

          Yes, for the hide-bound elites who run US education policy. Home schooling is not real schooling in the same way the Fox News is not a legitimate news organization.

          • survivor2011

            Wow….you need to get an education.

          • Corlyss

            We may have a failure to communicate. What’s your beef?

    • Andrew Allison

      I assume that Bard has thought of this and put anti-ghosting measures into place, but it would be nice to know that they have done so and publicized the fact in order to discourage it.

  • NCMountainGirl

    I like this. It offers a second chance to shine for bright teens who may not have done well in high school. Boys in particular often fall into that category.

  • Boritz

    Sounds like a good deal for Jessie, Badger, and Skinny Pete.

  • AnnSaltzafrazz

    Cool idea…but they should also think about math and science kids. How do they prove their academic worth outside the traditional path? Usually, you don’t show your great mathematics or engineering skills by writing a multi-page paper.

  • Corlyss

    Interesting idea. That would have suited my inner wonk a lot better than regurgitation drills the SAT and GRE and LSAT posed. Please keep us posted on the progress.

  • Douglas6

    This is the Billy Beane approach to college recruiting. Bard is going to have a hard time convincing top high school students, who have the grades and SATs to get into an elite school, to spend the time to write 4 research papers for Bard. But it just might work to bring in those kids who have the talent but for whatever reason don’t show it by the conventional measures.

    • SlienceOfSound

      Top high school students currently don’t apply to Bard. They’ll certainly continue to avoid it under a scheme designed to reduce the positive externalities of peer effects.

      • Corlyss

        I thought the same thing. Since the one thing that Harvards and Yales have to offer is midlife networking to save one from one’s earlier career blunders, can Bard compete in that arena? If not, they ain’t gonna magically create the requisite cachet to attract the cream, such as it is.

        • Douglas6

          The question then is whether this new process is any better than the old system (a) at separating out diamonds in the rough from the large pool of undistinguished high school students and (b) at attracting the same to come to Bard.

          • SlienceOfSound

            This is designed to bring in worse students without harming Bard’s SAT profile.

  • SlienceOfSound

    I never thought of WRM as a kowtowing yes-man. Equally disturbing: he doesn’t understand the economics behind this.

    The parents of mediocre Bard-aspirant high school students will increase their demand for college-prep help/tutors. The tutors can’t take the SATs for these students (though tons of money will continue to be spent trying to help their scores), but they can write ‘research papers’ for them. With Bard collecting more tuition and less SAT data, its bottom line improves and SAT-rankings aren’t harmed.

  • NoNewt

    One word: cheating.

    The idea is a good one, I readily and happily admit. But the likelihood of success and feasibility of this idea seem low at best.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service