Thoughts on NY Times Letters about Honors Colleges

Honors News: August 25, 2015

Below are excerpts from two letters to the editor published by the New York Times in response to Frank Bruni’s positive August 9 column about honors colleges and programs. Again, our thanks to Mr. Bruni for his kind remarks about A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs and for his support of honors colleges and programs as a strong option for talented students. Our comments follow both excerpts.

To the Editor:

“Frank Bruni argues correctly that honors colleges at many public universities give students the chance to get a superb education at a moderate price (“A Prudent College Path,” column, Aug. 9). But he might have expanded his argument further in addressing the value of honors colleges as they have evolved in recent years at private as well as public universities.

“Contrary to the general belief that an honors college is an elitist program for only the best students, many honors colleges now offer an array of intellectual and cultural resources to all students who choose to take advantage of them…

“Some of our programs are open only to the highest-achieving students, but others — involving research, fellowship mentoring and interdisciplinary coursework — are open to all. These programs allow students to receive a wide-ranging liberal arts education while still completing a focused major and preparing for the workplace or graduate school.”

PAULA MARANTZ COHEN
Dean, Pennoni Honors College
Drexel University
Philadelphia

To the Editor:

“Honors programs for a select few at public universities institutionalize blatant academic elitism and hypocrisy rather than diminish them. All college courses should be ‘honors courses,’ demanding and providing rigorous academic and intellectual experiences for everyone who attends college…

“Rather than casting 80 percent of the student body overboard into an intellectually mediocre classroom environment, reel back these students so that they, too, can experience what the university considers the best for the best.”

PHIL AVILLO
York, Pa.
The writer is emeritus professor of history at York College of Pennsylvania.

Responses:

Dean Cohen is correct in saying that many honors colleges and programs in private universities such as Drexel are essential for giving talented students an opportunity to participate in honors-specific courses and experiences, while also providing access to undergraduate research, fellowship mentoring, and even access to some honors classes.

The same is true of honors programs in public universities. An outstanding example is the University of Georgia Honors Program, which oversees the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO), a highly effective vehicle for promoting research excellence for all undergraduates, not just honors students. It is no coincidence that UGA, mainly through its honors program and research emphasis, is one of the national leaders in producing Goldwater Scholars. These outstanding undergraduates in the STEM disciplines are often selected later on for prestigious postgraduate scholarships.

Professor Avillo suggests that honors colleges and programs are guilty of “blatant elitism” and take resources away from the overall student population. This is a familiar attack on honors programs, and of course he is correct in saying that honors programs require extra university resources to provide smaller class sections for honors students, honors residence halls, and other special programs. And in some cases, honors students may be considered “elite” in a negative way. The question is: are these extra efforts justifiable?

(Here’s a great article on our site by Dean Christian Brady of Penn State’s renowned Schreyer Honors College. Dean Brady describes how honors programs can become more egalitarian and benefit the whole university.)

It is our view that the two main justifications for honors colleges and programs:

1. Most public and private honors programs at major universities require applicants to have very strong high school gpa’s along with standardized test scores in the top 8-9% nationwide. Our research suggests that in the current battle among colleges to enhance their selectivity profiles, many of these bright students are not finding places in the most elite private institutions.

In order for these students to find a learning environment that, in some ways, offers classes and other experiences that resemble those in elite colleges. Without the thousands of slots for these students in both public and private honors programs, the students would likely succeed anyway–but would they be challenged, or find a group with similar interests as freshmen, or go on to the best graduate and professional schools?

2. If you are one of the students described above and find that your dream private college has rejected you for whatever mystical reason, would you want to travel hundreds or thousands of miles and pay higher tuition to find a college that will offer you the challenges and opportunities you need, indeed deserve based on your qualifications? If given the right option, would you stay in your home state, or at least nearby?

Most students would say yes. And, sometimes, their state legislatures would like for them to stay in-state in order to avoid the “brain drain” that occurs when such students cannot find the type of education they desire in their home state. The fact is that no state right now, and probably in the foreseeable future, can magically create a UC Berkeley, Michigan, UCLA, UVA, UNC Chapel Hill, or a William & Mary. Or a UW Madison, Washington, UT Austin, or Illinois. But a state can, with additional support from donors, build honors colleges and programs.

Honors News is a regular (not always daily) update, in brief, of recent news from honors colleges/programs and from the world of higher ed. Occasionally, a bit of opinion enters the discussion. These brief posts are by John Willingham, unless otherwise noted.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply