The Brooklyn Public Library is an imposing building, with a 50-foot tall entryway portico and towering columns adorned with gold-leafed art. Since its completion in 1941, millions of people have walked through them in search of knowledge, culture, and, yes, books. 

But in 2017, more than three-quarters of a century later, the doors will open to a new demographic and provide a service previously unavailable to many. Next year, the library will become a college. 

In January, the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) will partner with Bard College for what is believed to be a first in the United States, according to Charlotte Crowe, assistant to the president at BPL: the public library will double as a free, credit-bearing liberal arts institution geared at serving low-income students. 

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In an era where many students are increasingly shepherded into trade schools and community colleges, if they are able to get an education at all, Bard at BPL’s philosophy is different: the new program teaches students the liberal arts, starting with Plato’s “Republic” and making its way to James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It On The Mountain.”

The first class will be small — about 16 students — and will take students through the standard liberal arts curriculum also taught at Bard’s campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. For now, students will graduate with an Associate in Arts degree

Low- and middle-income individuals in the United States are about 20% less likely than high-income people to go to college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But this gap is beginning to narrow — and programs like Bard at BPL could help accelerate more change by bringing education to the people who need (and want) it most.  

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“The Brooklyn Public Library really for its entire history has been dedicated to providing educational resources to everyone in Brooklyn and making education and access to information a democratic, equitable thing,” Crowe told Global Citizen. 

“Instead of the existing model where there are elaborate campuses that people travel to and live at to receive this education, the idea is that this education comes to you where you are in your community,” she added. 

Brooklyn — which has seen rising income inequality as it experiences gentrification and poorer individuals are displaced to the peripheries by high rents — is an apt place to start. 

The Bard at BPL program is aimed at people who “wanted to go to college, but life got in the way,” according to Salih Israil, special assistant to the directors at the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a similar project that brought liberal arts education to prisons in 2001. Alongside its classes, which will run from  9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Thursday, the program will also offer classes for the children of students who attend, according to Bklyner.

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Israil, himself a former inmate and a graduate of BPI, spent months doing outreach work at local community institutions to bring awareness to the program and encourage students to apply.

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His stops included the Brownsville Community Justice Center; the New York City Housing Authority; and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to name a few — and targeted all age ranges, from recent high-school graduates to middle-aged people hoping to go back to school. 

The college received accreditation in mid-October and by mid-December more than 700 people had expressed interest and 104 people submitted an application, according to Israil. 

“The whole thing is to let people know [a college education] is for them,” Israil said. “We’re trying to establish the fact that everybody should have access.” 

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The Bard Prison Initiative began in 2001, and has since helped more than 450 inmates at six correctional facilities receive their associate’s or bachelor’s degree while in prison, according to its website

Bard also runs a similar “microcollege” program for single and pregnant mothers in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where they partnered with a pre-existing community-based program for single mothers called The Care Center. 

“The way that the microcollege works, it’s an almost paradoxical combination of radical and traditional,” Madeleine George, a fellow for curriculum and program development at BPI, told Global Citizen. “It’s designed for full-time study, [for] in-depth, rigorous, [and] intimate college-level work and yet we’re looking for the kinds of students who have an appetite for that and who also don’t have the resources to throw regular tuition money in that direction.” 

George hopes that Bard’s model will inspire other colleges to consider implementing similar programs. 

“In principle, Bard is interested in modeling this as an approach for other schools,” she said. 

“This is just the beginning,” Israil said. “We’re moving toward a new model of education in this country. We have to be innovative and start thinking out of the box about how we give people high-quality education.” 


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