Non-traditional colleges: You have alternatives

Kathryn Bartlett and Colm Slevin

In Westfield, it seems most students are on the path to finish high school and attend a four-year university. But what if that isn’t right for you? Check out a few of the off-the-beaten-path options that we have highlighted below.

Note: The people quoted in this article are not spokespeople for their colleges and speak only to their own personal experiences. 

Bard College at Simon’s Rock

Logo for Bard College Simon’s Rock

Tired of high school? Bard College at Simon’s Rock, a unique entity within the Bard College system, may be for you. Motivated high school students break from the standard academic track to start at Simon’s Rock after finishing tenth or eleventh grade, entering college without a high school diploma. Though the term “early college” has been used to define a number of programs, Simon’s Rock is unique in being the only full-time, four-year college of liberal arts and sciences designed for students ready to leave high school early. 

Located on a small, tight-knit campus in Great Barrington, MA, Simon’s Rock offers a highly individualized education to each of its 425 students. All classes are small, with the average class size at 11 students. Students also have the opportunity for many other typical college academic opportunities, including internships, study abroad and research. Outside of the classroom, students can attend lectures and performances, social events like dances and talent shows or join 1 of the 50+ student organizations on campus. There are also basketball, soccer and swim teams that compete against other local colleges.

All students spend their first two years earning their Associate’s Degree through an “individualized, but well-rounded liberal arts framework,” selecting classes from every academic discipline. Some students stay at Simon’s Rock to earn their Bachelor’s Degree, focusing their study on 1 or several of the 35+ concentrations of study offered. Other students choose to transfer to another university for their last two years of college. Whichever path they choose, Simon’s Rock students have earned their BA by age 20. 

Former WHS student Elizabeth Shoobs decided to follow in her brother’s footsteps and attend Simon’s Rock after two years of high school at WHS. Shoobs decided to transfer to Simon’s Rock because she found the WHS curriculum to be too rigid and the class offerings at the college were better aligned with her interests. Now finishing up her first year at Simon’s Rock, she plans to get her Associate’s at Simon’s Rock before transferring to another institution where she will be studying art. 

“Attending classes has never been more fulfilling, and I’m grateful for that,” said Shoobs. “I don’t have to simplify ideas to be understood perfectly by others. Teachers sit at the same tables as students and do more listening than lecturing, and you address them by their first names. If a class isn’t being taught, you can invent one. The entire environment is the perfect combination of casual and formal.”

However, Shoobs also feels that early college is not for everyone, as students are not treated like they are in high school. “Simon’s Rock allows you to remove yourself from a high school experience that isn’t working for you, but you have to be comfortable in college-level classes and missing out on both stereotypical high school and college experiences to get that extra cushion of time,” said Shoobs.

Deep Springs College

Located on an isolated cattle ranch and farm in Deep Springs Valley, CA, near the Nevada border in the middle of the state, Deep Springs College is a one-of-a-kind two-year college for students dedicated to “lives of service to humanity,” according to their website. Between 12 and 15 students are admitted each year, creating an intimate community of under 30 total students. Each student is given a full scholarship, covering tuition, room and board. Founded in 1917, DS was one of the last colleges in the U.S. to go co-ed, with its first female students stepping foot on campus in the fall of 2018. Though DS is accredited to grant Associate’s Degrees, most students transfer their credits to later attend top universities; the most common schools attended by alumni are Yale, Brown, Stanford and University of Chicago.

The DS education is built upon three key pillars: academics, labor and student self-governance. There are no majors; students typically take two to three classes per semester in a variety of fields, including humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and the arts. Classes are rigorous and small, averaging eight students, and as a result, the courses are very student-driven.

Deep Springs College Logo

The labor involves upkeep of the farm and school. There is no maintenance staff and students’ responsibilities include collecting eggs, milking cows, irrigating the alfalfa farm, doing the dishes for the entire community and taking out the trash. Though DS is a fully operational cattle ranch and alfalfa farm, most students do not go on to pursue a job in agriculture. Rather, the labor pillar is designed to help students understand their role in a community and teach work ethic and responsibility. 

Finally, DS’s small size allows for a unique style of student self-governance, in which the students work with the faculty and staff in the day-to-day operation and governance of the college. The students are given immense responsibility over the school; among the things they handle are admissions, faculty hirings and recommendations for retention, academic policy and misconduct, course selection and communications with the outside world. 

Writer James Gibbs studied at DS for his first two years of college, arriving in the summer of 1989. Before DS, Gibbs attended a public high school in White Plains, NY, and first learned of DS through a flyer in the mail. “I was intrigued by the idea of a small, rigorous community in the desert,” said Gibbs in an interview with Hi’s Eye. “Part of the application process was visiting the valley, and when I got there and met the students, staff and faculty, I knew I would go if accepted.”

After two years at DS, Gibbs transferred to Cornell University to study architecture. Though there was the culture shock of moving from the small DS campus to the larger Cornell one, Gibbs did not find transferring to be too challenging. “DS prepared me well for any intellectual challenges I would face in my life, including at Cornell,” said Gibbs. 

It has been nearly three decades since Gibbs attended DS and the school has changed a lot, but he thinks these changes are positive. “Co-ed at DS had been a matter of discussion for many years and I think the college had done the groundwork for the change to happen in a ‘no big deal way,’” said Gibbs. “I do have strong nostalgia for the place as it was but I’m just as happy to celebrate, at the same time, the co-ed DS as it is now: a place that can include young people of any gender expression or identity.”

Even after all these years, Gibbs still considers DS to be a defining experience. “Every facet of who I am was affected by [DS] in an overwhelmingly positive way,” said Gibbs. “My basic sense of engaging with the world—with other people, with ideas, with conflict and challenge, with sustenance and life—was re-forged.”

For students considering DS, Gibbs thinks you’ll know if it’s right for you. “It is an intense place, and that attracted me,” said Gibbs. “I think looking for that intensity is probably a prerequisite for wanting to attend. My feeling is that people who will do well at DS probably know it’s for them.”

Minerva Schools at KGI:

Minerva Schools at KGI

For the student who wants to explore the world and receive a highly rigorous education, Minerva is right for you. Minerva Schools at KGI students start their freshman year in San Francisco, then travel around the world for the next three years. Students spend a semester in Seoul, London, Buenos Aires and more. The goal of Minerva is to provide access to a prestigious college worldwide; however, the admissions process is not easy. The Minerva admissions process includes a reading comprehension test, a math test, a video interview and an IQ test. Minerva only accepts a small fraction of the students who apply; according to Niche, Minerva has a two percent acceptance rate.

The student body at Minerva is incredibly diverse, as students come from all over the globe. “The community we have is from different backgrounds and different communities and we all come to San Francisco and other cities to live together in one building, and this makes us bond together,” Minerva student Svitlana Midianko said in an interview with Hi’s Eye. “We have people from 50 countries and traveling abroad and changing your country every 4 months makes us much more united. In every city. we have to learn to do laundry and get groceries, which is not easy, but because of this community, it is much more enjoyable and easier.”

Minerva students can earn their Bachelor’s Degree in five different majors: Arts and Humanities, Computational Science, Natural Science, Social Science, and Business. All classes at Minerva take place online using the Minerva Forum and have fewer than 20 students per class. First-year students at Minerva take four core classes that build habits of the mind, with focuses on thinking critical and creative thinking, communicating effectively and interacting effectively. 

Classes at Minerva are structured around debating, discussion and collaborative work, rather than passive memorization of facts. “We don’t have any quizzes, we don’t have any finals; we only have assignments and projects and we don’t have a need to memorize anything ever. It is just applying different analytical skills in different contexts,” said Midianko. “It makes you think why? Not what, because what is googleable.”