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Big Impact Interviews: Leon Botstein

Our interview with Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, for our book, Big Impact: Insights & Stories from America’s Non-Profit Leaders, was nothing short of profound and fascinating.

Bard College should not exist. When Leon Botstein was named president, in 1975, he was only 25 years of age, and—at least according to Botstein—was offered the job because no one else wanted it. The college was floundering, and everyone predicted it would close soon after Botstein took over.

Forty-two years later, Bard has 2,000 undergraduate students and a host of other programs, including graduate, early college/high school and 3+2 degrees, where students receive masters’ degrees after only 3 years of college and 2 of graduate school. In 2017, Bard was ranked the fourth most innovative college in the country by US News & World Report.

What is Botstein’s secret? Well, anyone who knows him knows he is brilliant—although he denies it. He said, “The biggest misconception about me is that I am gifted, I am not, I am just hard working.” We can learn from his relentless drive to make an undergraduate college education relevant, first in the 20th and now in the 21st century.

This means staying current with what students need to both contribute to a better world and excel in it after they graduate. It also means focusing on the pipeline of high school students who will eventually apply to college. Public high schools are often criticized for failing to prepare students adequately for college. Bard’s answer to this is its early college/high school program, in which high school students can earn up to one year, and sometimes even two years, of college credit by taking college-level courses following their 9th and 10th grade years.

The remarkable part about these early college programs is that Bard offers them free of charge through public-private partnerships. For example, Bard works with the New York City Department of Education to offer early college programs both in separate schools and in public high schools where students can take some early college classes.

Even more remarkable are the results these programs produce. In 2015, an independent study found that over 90% of Bard Early College graduates achieve their bachelors’ degrees in six years, versus only 59% for the rest of the college population. And because these students complete college in 2 or 3 years, rather than 4, they, their parents—and the government—save money, sometimes quite a lot of money.

We might ask why more cities don’t offer early college programs. The only answer we can give is that promoting successful innovation can take years, and requires the persistence of someone like Botstein to make it happen.

For a link to the audio of our interview with Leon Botstein, please click here.

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