A small college made a big splash this week when a new way to apply to Bard College was covered in the New York Times. Unlike any other admissions policy, Bard's new option allows a student to write four research papers from a list of 17 topics on the Bard website, and the topics are complete with the documentation you need to at least get started. Once submitted, if each one earns a professor's grade of B+ or higher, welcome to Bard.
No high school transcript, no test scores, no letters of recommendation. If you want a clean start, and you can show you know what you're talking about, here's your chance.
It's important to remember that these are research papers, not college essays. Since they deal with original documents and facts -- and since each one has to be at least 2,500 words long -- it's pretty clear these papers are going to take a little longer to write than the more subjective "Why Us?" essay that usually has a 500-word limit. That in itself may be a turnoff to students, especially those who are already taking a demanding load of classes that makes for long study nights.
In addition, some skeptics already claim it will only be a matter of time before essay mills start putting together "sample" responses to all 17 of the Bard prompts and selling them on the Internet, much like they already sell college term papers.
The longer hours of writing may be a turnoff to many students, and there may be some unethical co-opting of this new approach, but Bard's announcement creates a perfect opportunity for everyone to take a deep breath in the midst of application mania and revisit a simple question: How do colleges know a student is ready for college? The mountains of data on students who never complete college combine with stories about plots to cheat on standardized college tests to create a bleak picture. Given this information, isn't it time to take a different approach to college admissions?
That said, the volume of required writing and the ultimate security of the new Bard system suggest this is just the first step. The next iteration could imitate the response many college professors had years ago to rampant cheating on take-home essays. Instead of assigning one topic for students to write on at home, professors gave students three or four broad questions to take home and study. At the next class session, the professor would randomly select two of the four questions, and everyone had to answer the same question in class, without benefit of notes, computers, or friends.
If that sounds hard to implement, think about replacing the ACT or SAT test with a couple of hour-long essays -- keep the proctors, keep the test centers, but replace the tests with blank composition paper, and allow no study aids in the room. Students would simply have to show what they know; best of all, it wouldn't matter where they learned it. Talk about a common core.
Bard has long been a trailblazer in access, equity, and commitment to a broad-based college education. This new approach gives us all the opportunity to look at college admissions today, and wonder if a time for change is nigh. Bard may be alone in its offer for now, but there was once just a single four-year college that didn't require the SAT and ACT, and now there are hundreds.
It will be interesting to see where this goes.