by Robert L. Fried, Ed.D., and Eli Kramer, Ph. D.

Surrounded and supported by inspiring friends, The New American Baccalaureate Project is joining the movement to transform undergraduate higher education.  Our eyes are on the needs of today’s youth, and also on the future of liberal education and of our democracy. We are a small organization with big ideas, able to put forward a bold strategy that dovetails with and actualizes the best current thinking in higher education reform.

Our mission is to prepare smart, non-traditional learners to thrive at a liberal arts college, where they can join the ranks of young people capable of championing social justice and preserving our planet. 

The job as we see it is to help revitalize the liberal arts to serve the vast numbers of smart, non-traditional learners who are blowing off high school because it doesn’t mean much and putting their future, and the future of all of us, at risk.  To do this, we offer a new option for the baccalaureate degree that guarantees meaningful employment for grads, brings down the cost of a four-year college experience to a level all can afford, saves some worthy, mission-driven colleges that are facing extinction, and helps buttress democracy at a moment when it is more threatened than at any time in recent history.

We allow ourselves to “think big” because we are unconstrained by prevailing cultures within institutions that emphasize delivery of instruction, value scholarship above teaching, and peg student achievement to testing and time-based credits.

Just imagine . . . if we were able to reach out to America’s low-income and working-class youth—intelligent, often under-motivated kids who fail to gain much from high school and have almost no chance of being admitted to the kind of liberal arts college that so many of the most successful women and men attend.  Imagine if we could empower these kids to open their eyes and their minds to the power of the critical ideas and classical questions of the humanities, a privilege now largely restricted to children from affluent families. 

Imagine, too, if these overlooked high-potential young people could repopulate the best of America’s struggling liberal arts colleges and find there an ideal learning environment to ensure that they gain, along with an encounter with great ideas, the skills and experiences that our best employers are searching for: persistence, initiative, creativity, teamwork, and the willingness to take reasonable risks in pursuit of dynamic results. 

And imagine if we could bring to campus a cadre of passionate teachers, unencumbered by the dictate to “publish or perish,” to work with current faculty and area high schools to engage these learners in a curriculum that combines the best classical traditions of the liberal arts with skills and dispositions that lead to great careers and civic engagement.

We are the first to acknowledge that these ideas are hardly new.  The best of our colleges and universities are experimenting with any number of them.  What is new is bringing these ideas together in a mutually-reinforcing alternative baccalaureate

We mean inviting non-traditional high school learners, with help from college student mentors, to gear up for a baccalaureate that is team-taught, performance-based, encompassing classical liberal arts and essential career capacities, and avowedly committed to democratic and humane values.  We believe that this combination has the potential, over time, to revolutionize liberal education far beyond the small colleges we will be working with.  Make no mistake, such significant reforms are past due.

Here’s just a sampling of what some of our supporters have said—before we enlisted them to support our work:

“Despite our enormous investment in education, the majority of our students lack the skills necessary to get a good job, be an informed citizen, or—in some way that defies crisp definition—be a good and happy person.”

— Tony Wagner

“Our institutions of higher education are helping young people transform themselves, as they always have, helping them move from dependence to independence, from childhood to adulthood. College is good at that. Yet college is no longer good at equipping graduates to succeed in an ever more complex and bewildering world.”

— Cathy Peterson

“I work with many young people [who] describe looming disasters and escalating conflicts they hear about in the news and learn about from teachers in their schools. They also talk poignantly about public problems they experience in their lives, that echo the problems of so many others.”

— Harry Boyte

We could fill this article with similar quotes, but you have heard them all: minority and other first-generation students quitting college because they’re not well prepared or can’t adjust to an environment of privilege and an individualistic academic culture; graduates saddled with huge college debt who can’t find a job in their chosen field; faculty sequestered in academic silos, unable to reach across disciplines to engage 21st century learners; and, as outlined in a recent New York Times report, some of our most innovative colleges facing closure because they can’t find enough paying students.

So here is what we of the New American Baccalaureate are working to bring about:

  1. Linking liberal arts colleges with intelligent but underperforming high school students in their region, to help such students take charge of their learning, ready themselves for college-level reading, writing and speaking, overcome existing academic and cultural obstacles, and prepare for citizenship and careers in our complex 21st century society;
    • We will train college students to mentor these high schoolers to recapture their innate learning desires, to evade the prevailing emphasis on grades and testing, and to acquire skills and dispositions that lead to success in college and careers.
  1. Creating a baccalaureate degree option that is performance-based, affordable, personalized, and sustains the best liberal arts traditions of thought and action, while respecting students’ cultural backgrounds and equipping them with essential capacities to further democratic values, social justice and environmental sanity;
    • Our option will be open to self-motivated students from all backgrounds, including college-ready students from beyond the region who seek what progressive, student-centered and community-focused colleges have long championed. Our baccalaureate requires a high level of collaboration, with essential capabilities acquired in on- and off-campus environs, along with engaging seminars that feature less emphasis on grades and more on real-world integration and application of knowledge and skills.
  1. Hiring passionate teachers, full-time, who are free to devote themselves fully to undergraduate students, to work with colleagues at partner high schools and at their host colleges to marry performance-based learning with liberal education.
    • Our economic model allows a four-year college degree to be priced at about the cost of one year’s full tuition at many colleges, achieved by filling under-utilized classrooms with self-motivated students, working collaboratively to help each other succeed.

All this without requiring changes to existing faculty contracts or to high school and college programs for students who have chosen the traditional model.  Our New American Baccalaureate option is co-created at each college site and will gain adherents throughout higher education by proving its efficacy.

What we already have is the active engagement of reform leaders like Deborah Meier, Tony Wagner, Mike Rose, Cathy Davidson, Jose Bowen, Harry Boyte and others who champion democracy and call for basic changes in how we prepare young people for our world.

What we need are college and high school partners, foundation support, and the participation of leading entrepreneurs to work together to co-create our model within the communities where our non-traditional learners reside, awaiting a pathway to a bright future in a nearby liberal arts college that is likely beyond their imagination, as well as beyond their reach.

It is the newly empowered voices of such non-traditional learners that can restore a faith in democracy and humane values in a world grown frightened and cynical by the ascendance of autocratic populists.

The New American Baccalaureate Project is incorporated as a non-profit organization with 501 (c) (3) IRS tax-exempt status.  Rob Fried, the originator of this model is a retired Northeastern University professor and author (The Passionate Teacher, The Game of School, and The Skeptical Visionary: A Seymour Sarason Educational Reader) who in the early 1970s led a program of similar design at the University of New Hampshire.  A former colleague of Ted Sizer in the Coalition of Essential Schools, Fried has recently headed the Upper Valley Educational Institute, a free-standing performance-based graduate school for teacher and principal certification.