Western Kentucky Honors College: Regional Excellence, International Impact

The Honors College at Western Kentucky University came to our attention while we were doing our regular review of the number of prestigious national scholarships won by public universities, such as Truman, Goldwater and Fulbright awards.  For this and other reasons, the honors college at WKU is the third we will profile from among the increasingly important regional state universities.

We follow Goldwater awards closely because they are awarded to undergraduates only, and only to students in the STEM subjects.  The undergraduate focus points to the level of research and faculty support that students receive in order to win the highly competitive Goldwater scholarships.

Since 2008, WKU students have earned 15 Goldwater scholarships or honorable mention.  This would be a high level of achievement even for a top flagship university.

We also commend the honors college at WKU for its extensive curricular offerings, along with the association of the college with the Chinese Flagship Pilot Program, one of only 11 such undergraduate programs in the nation and the only one centered in an honors college.

Students in the Chinese Flagship Program receive intensive language instruction, regardless of major, and achieve very high levels of fluency.  In addition, the college reports that “in the past 3 years, our Flagship students have received 2 Fulbright Grants to China, 9 U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarships, 2 David L. Boren Scholarships, 3 Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarships, and 3 Foundation for Global Scholars Awards.”

The college is also affiliated with the Gatton Academy of Math and Science, the only state-funded residential high school in Kentucky for students in the STEM subjects.  This unique partnership allows gifted STEM students to take as many as 70 hours of college credit while they are in the academy, including many honors courses.  Graduates are able to pick and choose among top colleges in the nation, and about one-quarter decide to remain at WKU for the remainder of their undergraduate work.

Freshman entrants to the college are required to complete 33 hours of honors work, including a six-hour capstone experience/thesis.  A slightly different track is also available, requiring the same 33 hours but substituting honors seminars for the capstone/thesis.

Transfer students with 45 or fewer hours can still complete the 33-hour requirement.  Those with more than 45 hours of work behind them are eligible for the 18-hour honors in the major option, which includes a thesis.  All transfer students must have at least a 3.5 GPA.

Freshman applicants compete for 300 places in the college.  The minimum requirements are a 27 ACT or a 1210 SAT or high school graduation in the top 15 percent of the class.  But the average entrant has an ACT score of 29, SAT score of 1300, and a 3.86 high school gpa.

Another strong feature is the structure of the honors college.  It is our opinion that honors colleges and programs work to their fullest and best extent when they are also the focal point for mentoring students with the potential to win national prestigious scholarships.  The Office of Scholar Development at WKU is a part of the honors college and has three full-time staff members involved in the recruitment and support of high-achieving students.

The college has three honors residence options.  Freshmen may live in Minton Hall, a traditional, corridor-style facility that is the only coed freshman hall on campus (with gendered floors).  Bates-Runner Hall is a hotel-style dorm for sophomores and juniors, with shared rooms and private baths, while McLean Hall is a similar facility for juniors and seniors.  All three halls are centrally located.

There is also the brand new WKU apartments on Kentucky Street, each with a private room and bath.

Another benefit for honors students is priority registration for classes and, even more important, students can actually design their own majors with help from small faculty committees.  Class size is limited to 25 students, and many have 16 students or fewer.  Continuation requires maintaining at least a 3.2 gpa.  About 55 percent of honors students also study abroad, many in England and China.

In January 2014, the college will break ground for a new Honors/International Building, a $22 million, 67,000 square foot complex that will cement the relationship between the honors college and the university’s heightened focus on international studies.

As for financial aid, “all WKU students who are awarded the university’s top two scholarships: ‘Henry H Cherry Presidential Scholarships’ and the ’1906 Founders Scholarships’ are required to be in the Honors College.

“On average, the 300 Honors College first year students are awarded over $2 million in renewable scholarships for WKU… over 66% of our incoming first year student are awarded at least a renewable tuition scholarship.”

WKU is located in Bowling Green, the third largest city in Kentucky behind Louisville and Lexington.  The campus is on top a large hill overlooking the city of about 60,000 people and the entire Barren River Valley.   There is a GM assembly plant in the city, making Bowling Green the home of the Chevrolet Corvette.  WKU is the second largest university in the state and has the only honors college in the state.

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