The Center for American Studies and the Double Discovery Center at Columbia University forged a partnership to provide 45 rising seniors from New York City high schools from low-income backgrounds with an academically rigorous, college-level program in the humanities. The students study humanity’s deepest questions about leading lives of purpose and civic responsibility. "Freedom & Citizenship" is the program model for the Knowledge for Freedom initiative. 
Between the junior and senior years of high school, the students come into residence on Columbia’s campus for three weeks, where they experience the intensity of a seminar-sized discussion taught by college professors focused on major works of philosophy and literature. Over the following year, while applying to college as high school seniors, the students engage in civic initiatives inspired by the recognition that their lives are interconnected with the lives of others.

Purposes and Goals

The Freedom & Citizenship program exposes students to college-level humanities curricula, assists them in improving their writing and verbal skills, and equips them with critical tools with which to evaluate and participate in contemporary civic life. The program not only prepares students for college, but also heightens their expectations for what they can achieve while there. It raises students’ level of aspiration by proving to them what they are able to accomplish through their own hard work and endurance.

Early Successes

Early data suggests that the Freedom and Citizenship program can have a profound impact on students’ academic and civic success after high school. Nearly every one of the 300 graduates of Columbia’s Freedom & Citizenship program has enrolled in college within six months of finishing high school, even though they attended public schools where fewer than 60 percent of graduates advance to college. Nearly half of Freedom & Citizenship alumni have gone on to major in the humanities or social sciences in college, even though only a quarter indicate in a pre-program survey that they will major in those fields.

The change is remarkable when compared with national figures: 25 percent of students of color across America will major in the humanities and social sciences, compared to 47 percent at F&C. Finally, alumni of the Freedom & Citizenship program have reported higher levels of civic engagement than the national averages. F&C alumni volunteered in their communities and participated in political campaigns at twice the national youth rate. They attended public forums and contacted their government representatives at six and seven times the youth rate, respectively, and more of them belong to a club, have donated to a social cause, and voted in a midterm election than their peers. 

Program Challenges

The cost of providing New York City high school students with a free educational program is significant as the program involves a three-week residential summer experience, senior year college application support, and a nine-month after-school project in civic leadership. Yet, the program wildly succeeds by all measures, and institutions who engage in this work demonstrate a true commitment to civic education and the success and enrollment of low-income students. When colleges and universities commit to serving the local communities in which they exist, everyone benefits.

Final Thoughts

At a time when a lot of the talk about diminished social mobility in America is just that — talk, lip service, a wringing of hands rather than a springing into action — this seminar represents a bold exception, worthy of applause and emulation.
It assumes that these kids, like any others, are hungry for big ideas. And it wagers that tugging them into sophisticated discussions will give them a fluency and confidence that could be the difference between merely getting to college and navigating it successfully, all the way to completion, which for poor kids is often the trickiest part of all.

– Frank Bruni, “Plato and the Promise of College” in The New York Times

I’ve learned that despite my shyness and reticence, I want to be heard. I have so much to say and so many questions to pose. I had the privilege of seeing this side of me in the seminar.
– Ashley, F&C Participant in 2017-2018, now enrolled at Fordham University 

It taught me how to read, think, and analyze difficult texts and problems. It built my confidence and taught me how to function in a seminar setting. All in all, it made me more eager for college.
– Ridwan, F&C Participant in 2015-2016, now a graduate of Georgetown University 

The discussions that we have in the classrooms stick. They are carried with us everywhere we go as they change our insight and perspective of the world around us.
– Nabiha, F&C Participant in 2017-2018, now enrolled at City College


Released May 24, 2017