Driven and a bit eccentric, Max Nanis jumped straight to college after his junior year of high school in West Chester, Pennsylvania. "He said that high school didn't have any more to offer him," his mother, Beth, says.
Max dreamed of being a doctor, but he also had challenges. He suffered from dyslexia, which still slows his reading. He always struggled in literature classes, and to this day does not read fiction.
Today, Max, now 24, is not a doctor. Instead, he's a programmer and data visualizer at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, combining science, art and computer software skills to reveal hidden biological processes, like the behavior of a protein or bacteria colonies.
In his spare time, he builds sculptures and art installations that bring science to life. One of his video installations, which recently finished a year-long display at the Smithsonian Institution, conveys the massive scope of the human genome by scrolling Max's own DNA across a screen at a rate that takes one year to run a complete loop.
"Max would have been a great doctor," says Mariko Silver, the new president of Bennington College. "But I think the world is a better off with him working to change the way that millions of people see and solve problems."
So how did Max, the 17-year old aspiring premed student with learning challenges, become Max, the 24-year-old college graduate who now blends his three disparate passions into a single, enviable career track?
The short answer is that he found a school and a set of advisers who helped him to hone his own academic path while connecting him to the real world through repeated internships. Max was lucky to find a school that worked for him and to have parents who were willing to make significant sacrifices to get him there.
Most young people today would be happy to simply graduate from college and get a decent job. Of full-time college students who began in 2006, just 59 percent had graduated six years later, according the U.S. Department of Education. That figure remains unchanged since 1982, revealing generations of missed potential.
But potential is also squandered among those who do finish. In 2012, a whopping 44 percent of recent college graduates were "underemployed," meaning they were holding jobs that did not require a bachelor's degree, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
All of this has led to questions about whether American post-secondary education is connecting with people where they are and lifting them to where they need to go.
Every year, multiple books are published agonizing over affordability, quality and access in college programs, outlining a struggle to provide "high quality on a mass scale," a fear that we are "shortchanging countless gifted and creative individuals." Max's journey is instructive in that dialogue, not because every college can provide a similar path, but because every college has a Max whose parents have fewer resources or less passion. And some approximation of Max's path, many of these authors argue, must be made available on a large scale.
It was Beth Nanis who first suggested that Max look at Bennington College, a small liberal arts school nestled in Vermont's Green Mountains near the borders of Massachusetts and New York. Founded in 1932 as a mold-breaking women's college, Bennington has a long-standing commitment to personalized learning.
Beth felt her son needed a school that could channel his natural drive, temper his preoccupation with grades, develop his artistic spirit in harmony with his scientific pursuits, and accommodate his dyslexia without coddling him.
When Max first arrived at Bennington in the fall of 2008, he sat down with an academic adviser who challenged everything he thought about his studies and career plans. "She kept asking me 'why, why, why?’ ” Max said. "Every time I would answer, she would push me further."
Bennington has no majors. Working with his adviser and an academic committee, Max crafted his own curriculum. It's a formal process, reviewed and adapted several times as the student moves along, and a student's plans can cross disciplinary boundaries to develop unique skills and interests.
Max blended science and art, taking multiple classes in sculpture and also working with an instructor who emphasizes large-scale video art installations.
Max soon learned he couldn't coast. In his first science class, the instructor gave him a B+, while giving an A- to an art student who Max knew was not at his level.
"I was livid," Max recalls, "but after I read my evaluations, I realized she just expected more from me." The instructor was grading him against himself.
At Bennington, grades are optional. Though students are encouraged to take two years of traditional grades to build a grade point average, classes are normally graded on a pass/marginal pass/fail basis. But each grade does include a detailed written evaluation.
"The transcript is a bit unwieldy when it arrives, because there is actual information in it," says Mark Wunderlich, a literature professor and poet. "It's colored by the experience the faculty members had with that student. You can learn a lot from a Bennington transcript."
All students at Bennington complete an annual seven week internship in January and early February, between fall and spring term, while many traditional colleges don't push internships until junior or senior year. These internships are an academic requirement, graded like class work. Students often land their first job through one of these experiences.
Max's first internship involved writing code for industrial chemistry processes, and his second was in a hospital, shadowing doctors. He also worked with one doctor on a paper about blood glucose diagnostics. That's how he figured out he didn't want to practice medicine. "It became very clear that I belonged more on the research side," Max says.
In his fourth and final internship, he worked at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. There, he helped a molecular biologist study the principles of molecular self-assembly of viruses. That last internship landed him his current job.
Extending the model
All of this came at a cost. Bennington is not cheap and has a limited endowment. The school estimates its total annual cost at just north of $62,000 a year, making tuition out of reach for most Americans.
Max's mom is a public school teacher, and his dad owned a small machine sales and repair shop, which he sold to help pay for Max's tuition. His parents also sold their home and bought a smaller one with a new mortgage.
Since few families will be able or willing to sacrifice their home or business to pay for college, the question of scale and access lurks in Max's story.
These are questions Mariko Silver is very attuned to. Now just 37, Silver was hired as Bennington's new president this past summer, after rising quickly through the ranks of college administration, first at Columbia and then at Arizona State University. At ASU, she worked at the opposite end of the scale, an institution committed to providing high quality education to 100,000 at a time.
How much of Max's experience could be extended to multitudes of college students at large state universities? Could students like Max at such schools get anything like what he got?
"Larger institutions tend to push kids toward their strengths," Silver notes. "The intense advising we offer here pushes kids to move out of comfort zones."
"I would hope that no matter where Max went," Silver said, "someone would see his incredible spark and really push him to really make the world a better place, in a way that best suited his skills and abilities."
Silver encourages parents to study the advisory systems at schools they are considering. Some do well, Silver said, but advising is both vital and hard to scale.
Small classes are also hard to scale, but experimentation is possible. Some larger institutions are now “flipping the classroom,” which means putting lectures online and freeing up class time for interaction.
"When done right, flipped classrooms are a great corrective in large classes," Silver said.
Some schools, she notes, are also investing in better training for graduate student teaching assistants. "Far too often, we don't teach graduate students how to teach,” she said.
But the key piece of the Bennington puzzle that could be adopted by larger schools, Silver said, is the Field Work Term, the annual internship. Just as Max learned that medical practice was not his thing by working in a hospital, Silver cites several students who found that their multiple internships helped them figure out what they wanted to do for a career.
So can it scale?
For Max, college was a process of self-discovery, spurred mainly by intense faculty advising, a hand-built curriculum and regular forays into the real world.
The Bennington vision, wrote alum Mark Edmundson in a 1994 New York Times piece, is to help you "become ever more insistently and complexly who you are." In other words, it aims to bridge the gap between developing a complete human being and preparing a worker for a job.
That bridge was articulated by Peter Drucker, the legendary management guru, who taught at Bennington for eight years in the 1940s.
Back in 1957, when the pace of change was much slower than today, Drucker argued "a practical education must prepare a man for work that does not yet exist and cannot yet be clearly defined. To be able to do this a man must have learned to learn. He must be conscious of how much there is still to learn. He must acquire basic tools of analysis, of expression, of understanding. Above all he must have the desire for self-development."
Can the Bennington model scale? If Silver is right, the answer is ... maybe.