Bard College Offers Free College Courses for Low-Income Students

The economically disadvantaged find a higher learning with Bard’s Clemente Course in the Humanities

These days, no matter what economic class you might occupy, paying for a college education is a strain. But for those living on a very low income, it is often more than difficult; it’s impossible.

Until now. Making higher education available to the economically disadvantaged is the goal of the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities. Currently in its third year, this innovative program offers five introductory college-level courses — in philosophy, literature, U.S. history, art history, and critical thinking and writing, all taught by Bard professors — to low-income students at absolutely no cost. All expenses — tuition, books, even transportation and childcare — are covered by the program. Classes are held twice a week from October through June at the Kingston Library; those who successfully complete the 110-hour program earn six credits from the college.

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Just like any other college course, participants must apply to get in — although the basic requirements are rather different: Prospective students must be at least 16 years old (a high school diploma is not mandatory), able to read a newspaper in English, and have a household income of no more than about $17,000 a year. Most importantly, though, they must offer a “powerful statement” of their commitment to the course, says Marina van Zuylen, director of the program and a Bard professor. “We never dumb it down,” she says of the coursework. “We teach difficult material — Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Kant, Virginia Wolff. It’s a seminar format, so the students are expected to share their ideas.” About 25 students are accepted into the program each year; the make-up of each class is “a big mix,” says van Zuylen. “We had an 80-year-old, and three sisters between the ages of 16 and 19.”

All expenses — tuition, books, even transportation and childcare — are covered by the program

Lucas O’Keefe-Sommer, 31, recently completed his first semester of the program. While the coursework isn’t overly demanding, “finding the time to write a paper after putting in a day at work is tough,” he admits. His favorite subject: philosophy. “Having been out of school for upwards of 10 years, I’m really enjoying taking part in something that’s intellectual,” he says. “It’s interesting to see the interplay between the students and professors.”

Van Zuylen echoes this sentiment, pointing out that each group has something to gain from the other. “These students have never been taken as seriously as they should have been. The course gives them back the voice they always had, but never knew how to speak through,” she says. “I have learned so much from them.”


bard college clemente programWell done: Marina van Zuylen congratulates a graduate of the Bard Clemente Course last fall

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