Brown's Pre-College program kicked off in 1982 with a total of 99 students; since then, it's grown to host nearly 7,000 students from across the globe each summer.

Brown celebrates 40 years of Pre-College programs for high schoolers, locally and globally

Since the early 1980s, the University has offered a taste of college academics and extracurricular experiences — based on Brown’s distinctive strengths — through a diverse lineup of academic programs for young students.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Like many students considering college options, Carolyn Considine was a bit apprehensive as her junior year at Campolindo High School in Moraga, California, approached. Her trepidation centered on the difference between learning in a structured high school classroom versus the more self-directed educational experience common on most university campuses.

So Considine enrolled in the Leadership Institute — one of Brown University’s comprehensive suite of Pre-College Programs, which this year celebrate 40 years of introducing high schoolers to the opportunities and responsibilities that come with balancing challenging academic and outside-of-the-classroom experiences.

“The Leadership Institute provided a great glimpse into being a college student and gave high school students the confidence to know that professors are there to help guide their journey,” said Considine, who completed the program last summer. “I now have greater confidence about entering college and being able to get the most out of that experience.”

Brochure for first-ever Brown Academcy
A brochure highlights the launch of Brown's first-ever Summer Academy, now known as Pre-College.

Launched in 1982 with 99 students, Brown Pre-College now offers more than 300 non-credit, first-year, college-level courses on campus in Providence, online — particularly after expanding remote options during the COVID-19 pandemic — and through location-based programs in domestic and international locations ranging from Alaska to Washington, D.C., to Italy and Spain. Enrollment has exploded to nearly 7,000 students in 2022, representing all 50 states and more than 70 countries.

Course offerings through the Leadership Institute, Brown Environmental Leadership Lab, STEM for ninth and 10th graders, location-based programs in Italy and Spain, and Summer@Brown — the largest pre-college program — with both in-person and online options ranging from one to six weeks, reflect the curricular diversity of Brown’s signature Open Curriculum: From “Ancient DNA: Uncovering the Secrets of Our Species” to “Cancer Biology: An Evolving Puzzle” and from “Egyptology 101” to “The Leadership and Politics of Food” to “Medical Diagnostics: Observation, Interpretation and the Art of Being a Better M.D.”

Students who come to Providence get a real-life taste of what living in a dorm is like: the independence and responsibility needed to get to class on time, fulfill commitments both in and out of class, and simple lessons like keeping up with laundry. And whether students enroll online or on campus, they have the opportunity to get involved in social programs as well, with relationship-building a crucial focus of Brown Pre-College.

For Considine, the chance to work with Sage Morgan-Hubbard, a pre-college instructor and assistant director of the Brown Center for Students of Color, was particularly valuable in addressing concerns about working directly with college teachers and researchers.

“The program gave me the chance to work directly with a university professor,” Considine said. “Previously, that concept would have sounded very intimidating, but Brown Pre-College laid that concern to rest immediately.”

That is precisely how University leaders want students to feel after their pre-college experience.

“The experience gives them ample opportunity to spread their wings and to try new things,” said Adrienne Marcus, dean of pre-college and undergraduate programs. “Each summer, Brown Pre-College provides students from across the globe access to Brown’s approach to teaching and learning. They take that impactful experience and bring it back to their hometown or city, using the skills they've developed while studying with us to support their educational pursuits through high school and into their college years. We know that participating in the program has guided pre-college alumni toward studying certain fields they got their first taste of during their summer at Brown.”

The program gave me the chance to work directly with a university professor. Previously, that concept would have sounded very intimidating, but Brown Pre-College laid that concern to rest immediately.

Carolyn Considine Brown Leadership Institute alumna
Carolyn Considine

A program takes root

Brown Pre-College originated in an exchange during the early 1980s between a graduate student and Karen Sibley, who had assisted Reginald D. Archambault, professor of education emeritus and inaugural dean of summer studies, in launching Brown Summer Academy, a credit-bearing program for high schoolers. He had a vision of the summer academy as a full-fledged summer school for high school students.

Sibley, who later served as the academy’s director, recalled the student offering to teach a three-week essay-writing summer course to academy students. Sibley responded that offering credit for such a short course wouldn’t be possible, but an idea was sparked: Could the writing course be offered as a college-level, non-credit course to high school students? Would there be interest? Archambault and Sibley decided to find out.

“This was a pivotal moment,” Sibley recalled four decades later. “We said, ‘Let’s pilot a non-credit three-week writing course,’ and it went really well. We recruited students quite easily.”

Strong interest in the early courses and the positive learning experiences described by students and instructors led to an expansion of offerings. Significant distinctions in Brown summer courses were (and continue to be) the short and intensive structure as well as the evaluation of student accomplishments through course performance reports rather than letter grades. 

“The student is responsible for their own learning experience,” Sibley said, explaining the early thinking about how best to introduce high schoolers to the rigors of college. “You can learn as much or as little as you drive yourself to do. When we started to expand, we recognized that the demand was quite large. No one else had really thought about non-credit offerings at the college level, and so we expanded dramatically.”

The other benefit was that the growing sets of diverse course offerings represented Brown’s distinctive Open Curriculum, which enables undergraduates to develop a personalized course of study, offering them freedom to study what they choose and flexibility to discover what they love.

“What we ultimately were able to offer through Brown Pre-College very much aligned with Brown’s mission and the University’s belief in the benefits of an Open Curriculum,” Sibley said.

Diversity and accessibility

From the outset, Archambault and Sibley stressed that enrolling a diverse array of students and making elements of a Brown education accessible to learners from many backgrounds would be key components of Brown Pre-College.

Students in a pre-college drawing class
Some Pre-College academic exercises, like this drawing class, take place outside during the nicer summer weather. Photos by Nick Dentamaro/Brown University.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we were able to serve students from around the world,” Sibley said. “These kids weren’t coming with their best friends to go to school and stay in a dorm room with them. They were coming to make and meet new friends from all over the world. That was a part of the campus experience we designed.”

The same remains true today, with students coming from six continents this summer but also a significant cohort of students from the nearby Providence Public School District. Scholarships are available to those who demonstrate financial need.

“After 39 years, Brown has a very long tradition of providing remarkable, often life-changing experiences for young scholars,” Marcus said. “Alumni share that the benefits of those experiences include shaping who they are as learners and community members well beyond their time at Brown, and creating a foundation of critical skills they will use in their future educational and work experiences.”

Courtney Bertrand, a 2017 alumna of Brown Pre-College, noted how she made lifelong connections during her time enrolled on campus: “My experience 100% met my expectations,” she said. “I fell in love with the campus. I made so many lifelong friends, and I got a taste of what college was going to be like.”

Bertrand, a Meriden, Connecticut, native, now studies digital media and journalism at the University of Hartford.

A student checks in at the registration table before moving into their dormitory room, officially kicking off their Summer@Brown experience.
A student checks in at the registration table before moving into their dormitory room, officially kicking off their Summer@Brown experience.

“Overall, the experience made me not only hopeful for college, but excited to branch out of my comfort zone,” she said. “It made me more independent as well as confident that I would do well being away from home.”

This is precisely what the program’s early leaders had in mind when launching Brown Pre-College 40 years ago.

“I’m delighted that the program is successful and thriving,” Archambault said. “And I’m most pleased that Brown is continuing to nourish the program and to keep it going and make it a vital part of the University.”

Marcus said that four decades after its start, Brown Pre-College continues to positively impact young lives today.

“We are honored to carry on the legacy of creating these opportunities for young people,” she said. “We plan to continue to provide the best possible experiences for young scholars interested in pursuing knowledge for its own sake, and leaving Brown with a better sense of who they are as learners and people. We hope it will instill in them a passion for lifelong learning, wherever they may go next.”