Editor’s Note: This is the third and final post in our series on honors program completion rates.
In the first post, we wrote about the hybrid structure of honors programs and how that can affect honors completion rates. An honors completion rate is the percentage of honors students who complete all honors course requirements for at least one option by the time they graduate. The second post presented a tentative formula for evaluating honors completion rates.
This post has two parts. The first part compares honors completion rates of main option and multiple option honors programs; the second part (2) a compares completion rates of honors colleges and honors programs.
Main option programs emphasize only one curriculum completion path, usually requiring more than 30 honors credits and often an honors thesis as well. Multiple option programs offer two or more completion paths for first-year students. One option might require 24 honors credits; another might require 15-16 credits. Either of these might also require a thesis.
Many universities are now establishing honors colleges. These usually have a dean and a designated staff of advisors. They typically provide at least enough honors housing space for first-year students. Some began as honors programs and then re-formed into honors colleges. Quite a few honors colleges have significant endowments.
Honors programs do not have a dean, but are administered by a director and staff. Sometimes there are few real differences between honors colleges and programs. In general, however, honors colleges have more staff and offer more access to honors housing.
We received data from 23 honors colleges and eight honors programs, having a combined enrollment of more than 64,000 honors students. The 31 parent universities had an average U.S. News ranking of 126, ranging from the low 50s to higher than 200.
The first summary is below:
PART ONE: SUMMARY STATISTICS
MAIN OPT PROGRAMS VS
MULTI OPTION PROGRAMS
NO. OF PROGRAMS
NO. HONORS STUDENTS
COMPLETION % rate
UNIVERSITY GRAD RT
UNIV GRAD RT>COMPLETION RT
HONORS GRAD RATE
HONORS GR RT>COMPLETION RT
HONORS GR RT>UNIV GR RT
TEST SCORES ADJ TO SAT
CURRICULUM REQUIREMENT AVG
THESIS OPTION Y/N
THESIS REQ ALL OPTIONS Y/N
DORM RMS / FR & SOPH
HON CLASS SEATS / HON STUDENTS
APPLY SEP TO HONORS Y/N
The second summary, comparing honors colleges and honors programs, is below:
Honors completion rates, as we noted in a previous post, are a complicated issue. They represent the percentage of students who enter an honors program and then complete all honors requirements for at least one completion option by the time they graduate.
They are related to university freshman retention rates and university graduation rates, but in order to evaluate them there must be some workable baseline completion rate derived from a significant sample of programs.
Honors deans and directors at 31 public university honors programs contributed the data used to calculate the values in the next paragraph, along with extensive additional data we use in rating honors programs. The 31 programs enrolled more than 64,000 honors students in Fall 2017. At some point we might include completion rates as a metric; if we do, then this formula, or an improved version, might be used.
This tentative formula takes into account (1) the average (mean) honors completion rate for the whole data set (57.88 percent); (2) the mean university-wide freshman retention rate for the whole data set (86.81 percent); (3) the completion rate of each program; (4) the freshman retention rate for the parent university of each program; and (5) the graduation rate of each university.
The formula assumes that a desirable target honors completion rate should at least equal the midway point between the university graduation rate and the adjusted honors completion rate.(See examples below, however, for programs that have honors completion rates that exceed the university graduation rate.) The formula can easily be changed to include lower or higher target levels by increasing or reducing the divisor.
H = the mean honors completion rate for the data set;
F = the mean freshman retention rate for the data set;
P = the program completion rate;
C = the completion rate of each program adjusted to the university freshman retention rate (.67*R);
R = the freshman retention rate of each parent university;
G = the graduation rate of each parent university;
T = the estimated target completion rate after the formula is applied. T = (G + C) /2. This is an estimate of what the minimum completion rate should be, given the university’s freshman retention rate and graduation rate, and the mean completion rate and mean freshman retention rate for this data set. Other data sets would of course have different data, but the formula could still be applied.
The completion rates of ten programs exceeded the graduation rates of their parent universities.
Here is the formula, where P = 61%; R = 92%; G = 83%:
First step = (H/F), or .57.88 / 86.81. The result is .67. This is a constant for this data set.
Second step is to adjust the completion rate in relation to the university freshman retention rate = .67 *R, or .67 *92. The result is 61.64 (C), a bit higher than the actual program completion rate of 61.0 (P), because of the relatively high freshman retention rate.
Third step is to adjust the completion rate C in relation to the university graduation rate in order to calculate the target completion rate. T = (G + C) /2, or (83 + 61.64) /2 = 72.32 (T).
Fourth step is to calculate P – T, which would be 61.00 – 72.32 = –11.32. This step calculates the extent to which the program completion rate varies from the estimated target rate. The program is performing below the estimated target rate. The relatively high university graduation rate is the main reason.
Honors program A had a program completion rate (P) of 84%, a freshman retention rate (R) of 88%, and a university graduation rate (G) of 73%. The C rate would be .67*88, or 58.96. The T calculation would be (G + C) /2, or (73 + 58.96) / 2= 65.98 (T). Now calculate C – T, (or 84 – 65.98) = +18.02. This program is performing far above its estimated target rate.
Honors program B had the same program completion rate (P) of 84% but a much higher freshman retention rate (R) of 95%, and a university graduation rate (G) of 81%. Calculating the C value would be .67*95, or 63.7, and the T would (G + C) /2, or (81 – 63.7) /2 = 73.325. When we calculate C – T, (84 – 73.325), the result is + 11.675. This program is performing well above its estimated rage, but even with the same completion rate as Program A, the impact of higher graduation and freshman retention rates for Program B causes its relative performance rating to be lower than Program A. In other words, the expectations were higher for Program B. Both programs are exceptional in that their honors completion rates exceed their university graduation rates.
Honors program D had a program completion rate (P) of 40%, a freshman retention rate (R) of 82%, and a university graduation rate (G) of 53%. C would be .67*82, or 54.94. T would be (G + C) /2, or (53 + 54.94) /2 = 53.97. Calculating C – T, the result is 40 – 53.97, or -13.97. Program D is significantly underperforming based on the formula.
This post, by editor John Willingham, is about 4,000 words in length, so not a quick read. As the title indicates, the issue of honors completion is complicated. The post makes frequent references to statistical data. Our thanks to the 31 honors deans and directors who contributed data for this report and for the Fall 2018 edition of INSIDE HONORS, due out in early October.
This post was edited on August 6, 2018. All changes were minor.
First of all, what is an honors completion rate?
It is the percentage of honors program entrants who complete the required honors curriculum by the time of graduation. Many programs have more than one honors curriculum completion option; for example, entering freshmen may be required to finish 30 honors credits and write a thesis for the main option, or they might need to complete only 18 credits without a thesis for a lower option. Honors completion rates are not the same as graduation rates. Entering honors students, because of their strong credentials, will have very high graduation rates regardless of honors completion.
Completing the requirements of an honors program is typically not directly related to graduating with Latin honors (cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude) even though some universities do make the connection. Latin honors are most often tied to a student’s university grade point average or class standing. In many colleges and universities a student can graduate with Latin honors without taking any honors courses or writing a thesis. Many, if not most, honors program completers do also earn Latin honors.
At least two researchers have written that honors completion rates can be extremely low (in the 30 percent range) and that, because publicizing completion rates can be embarrassing to some programs and their parent institutions, the rates are a “Dirty little secret.” Academic studies leave the impression that having 50 percent or more of honors students complete one or more options could be, if not desirable, then acceptable. Using any set percentage as a standard is, however, questionable. (Please see below.)
University of South Carolina
The data we have received does provide evidence that some program completion rates are as low as 30 percent. On the other hand, the mean six-year completion rate in our own study of 31 honors programs, enrolling more than 64,000 honors students, was 58 percent. The years covered were 2010-2011—2015-2016.
Some honors educators believe that offering the lower, “mid-career” options increases the likelihood of at least some level of completion. The researchers cited above found evidence that mid-career completers are also inclined to add higher levels of honors completion before graduation.
Academic studies of honors retention, completion, and university graduation rates have focused on individual programs rather than on a significant range of programs. These studies have evaluated the impact that program curriculum requirements, entrance test scores, high school GPAs, housing, co-curricular activities, first-year seminars, and other factors have had on honors retention, completion, and graduation.
Our own work began with an analysis of 14 factors: program size; mean test scores of admitted students; number of honors credits required for completion; six-year graduation rate of honors entrants; six-year university graduation rates; university freshman retention rates; number of honors sections offered; average size of honors classes; number of honors sections in key academic disciplines; percentage of honors program members occupying classroom seats; comparison of main option and multiple option program completion rates; impact of a thesis requirement; the percentage of honors residence hall places available for the first two years; and the impact of requiring a separate honors application or credentials. After considering the potential value of each factor as an independent variable in our final models, we excluded some of factors based on tested co-linearity.
Again, we will publish a full statistical report in a separate post. We have also developed a formulafor estimating target completion rates, taking into account variations in rates for honors completion, freshman retention, and university-wide graduation.
Below is a detailed discussion of the honors completion issue.
Honors educators and university administrators have a keen interest in achieving high honors completion rates. Honors students bring higher test score profiles to the university as a whole, and one would anticipate that being in an honors program would make it even more likely that these students would go on to graduate and, in the process, improve the university’s retention and graduation rates.
While the academic studies make it clear that honors student entrants, whether completers or not, have high retention and graduation rates, it is not altogether clear that they have higher rates than those of non-honors students who entered the university with equivalent credentials.
Evidence does indicate, however, that after one or two years in an honors program, students do have better critical thinking skills than similarly qualified non-honors students, probably due to smaller, interdisciplinary classes in the first year and greater interaction with faculty, mentors, and fellow students. And of course these skills and a greater likelihood of obtaining strong faculty recommendations should help students to gain entrance to prestigious graduate and professional schools or find highly desirable and remunerative employment.
Arizona State University
Students who do not actually complete all honors requirements do not perform as well academically as honors completers and also take somewhat longer to complete their undergraduate work. One reason: almost all honors students enjoy some form of priority registration.
The principal goals of honors educators and administrators are to improve the metrics of the host university by enrolling high quality students and to provide those students with an enhanced education that can compare favorably with the education one might receive in an elite private college or university.
Our data and other studies show that honors programs do meet the goal of improving university metrics. Honors entrants (not necessarily program completers) on average graduate at a rate 19.7 percentage points higher than the rate for their parent universities as a whole, according to our data. For programs housed in universities with relatively low university graduation rates, the difference can be more than 35 percentage points. (Of course, honors entrants who graduate make up a part of the graduation rate of the university as a whole.)
The main goal of honors educators, however, is to provide an enhanced education.
Honors completion rates should surely be one measure of meeting this goal. Low completion rates are an especially discouraging result given the cost and effort allocated to honors. “Non-participation or minimal participation of honors students is the honors equivalent of poor overall university retention and graduation rates,” according to one paper on the subject.
The quote is probably accurate when it comes to describing the mindset of honors educators. But comparing honors completion rates to, for example, the graduation rates of elite colleges and universities is problematic. Honors programs are a hybrid; this all but universal, structural reality clearly differentiates honors programs from most elite colleges, which generally do not have honors programs. (More on the hybrid issue below.)
Comparing honors completion rates with the graduation rates of the parent university as a whole is more reasonable, provided that there is some baseline ratio of honors completion rates to university graduation and freshman retention rates. Programs in our study with completion rates above the mean of 58 percent do, on the whole, match the graduation rates for the parent universities. Programs with completion rates below the mean, on average, fail to match the university graduation rate by about 20 percentage points. (These rates and ratios will be discussed in the next post, and, again, we have developed a baseline formula for estimating target completion rates.)
Honors programs seek to combine the best qualities of an elite private college with those of a large research university. In general, this means that the “elite private college” components of this hybrid model are smaller classes, more interdisciplinary sections and class discussion, more faculty mentoring, completion of a substantial honors curriculum and sometimes an undergraduate thesis, and a high level of collegiality in the form of co-curricular activities and access to honors housing.
The advantages of the “large research university” include academic majors in abundance, more undergraduate research opportunities, study under nationally recognized scholars, the enjoyment of big college football and other athletics, larger alumni networks, and life in a “college town” that is centered on the large university. Some of these advantages are, however, double-edged (see below).
The hybrid model, if realized, would be for many students an ideal college experience. But one can imagine how daunting it is to meet such expectations–to match private elites at their own game and to optimize the research university experience–all simultaneously. Honors and university administrators would like to see honors completion rates that equal or exceed parent university graduation rates, or even the graduation rates of elite colleges. But in the context of honors completion rates, some of the hybrid components are positive while others can work to lower completion rates.
THE HYBRID MODEL: WHAT MAKES IT WORK?
Six of the 31 programs in our study had six-year honors completion rates of 80 percent or higher. (But recall that honors entrants, regardless of honors completion, do graduate from the host university at a much higher rate than the rate for all students, on average about 87 percent.)
These programs are, in alphabetical order, by university: Arizona State Barrett Honors College; CUNY Macaulay Honors College; University of Illinois Campus Honors Program; Penn State Schreyer Honors College; University of South Carolina Honors College; and the UT Austin Plan II Honors Program. Programs with rates of 70 percent or higher, in alphabetical order, are Clemson Calhoun Honors College and the Colorado State Honors Program.
Colorado St University
The six programs with completion rates of 80 percent or higher have striking differences. Barrett Honors College at ASU and the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State make very extensive use of honors contracts and mixed sections. Compared with the funding required for separate honors sections, the cost of contract and mixed sections is much less. Honors contracts allow a student to take a non-honors course for honors credit if the student “contracts” with the instructor to do some form of additional work. Mixed sections are those that include honors and non-honors students; they should be more rigorous or have an honors-only discussion or lab section. Schreyer Honors College at Penn State has an extremely large percentage of mixed sections—but honors students make up a high percentage of total students in those sections.
The UIUC Campus Honors Program and the UT Plan II program, both small in size, have a far more structured curriculum that does not include contract or mixed section credit. Plan II students receive most of their honors credit through Plan II-specific courses, even in subjects such as physics. CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College students take honors-only classes offered by the honors college or by academic departments. The South Carolina Honors College offers an impressive range of honors-only classes of the same type, and only about 11 percent of sections are mixed. The program does not offer contract options.
Contract and mixed sections give students a lot of flexibility. Many of these courses are upper-division, so students can continue to receive honors credit throughout their time in the program, without having to wait for a specific honors-only course to open. It is difficult for many large honors programs to achieve four-year involvement without utilizing contract and mixed sections. Yet the South Carolina Honors College and the Macaulay Honors College at CUNY both have more than 2,000 honors students and also have strong four-year participation.
But based on statistical analyses of the data from all 31 programs, common predictive factors emerge: high university freshman retention rates; a substantial honors curriculum (30 credits or more); an emphasis on one completion option; and enhanced access to honors housing. Other positive factors include higher test scores, important to freshman retention rates; and smaller class sizes. Both of these factors have their greatest impact in programs with multiple, lower completion requirements.
As a variable in multiple regression, the impact of curriculum “flattens” because much of its effect appears in the variables for main option emphasis, honors grad rates, housing, separate honors application, and especially by participation if the latter is also a variable. The same flattening occurs with the impact of test scores, much of it expressed by the freshman retention variable.
Penn St Schreyer students
Programs looking for a “shorthand” method of assessing completion issues might find it in one overriding measure, which we call “participation”: the percentage of honors program members who occupy classroom seats in a given term. This participation rate correlates very significantly with honors completion, as one would expect. If an honors program has 1,000 members, and 1,000 honors credit classroom spaces are filled in a given term, then the participation percentage is 100. But because some honors students almost always take more than one honors class per term, it is common for participation percentages to be higher than 100. (If 1,000 members occupied 1,100 classroom spaces, then the participation rate would be 110 percent.)
The mean participation rate for all 31 programs was 129 percent. For the 16 programs with completion rates above 58 percent, the mean participation rate was 150 percent. For the 15 programs with lower completion rates, the mean participation rate was 108 percent.
For main option programs, the participate rate was 1.49; for multiple option programs, it was 1.11.
(So, a path to improvement might be >More Honors Housing >Emphasis on 30+ Credit Curriculum >Increased Freshman Retention >More Honors Class Sections and Disciplines>More Classroom Spaces Occupied>Higher Participation>Higher Completion Rate. This path, like most things in higher education, is impossible without funding. All honors deans and directors want to achieve high completion rates. The fact is that almost all honors programs do their best with the resources they have been dealt—and it is the rare honors student who does not benefit from a program even if he leaves after a year or two.)
Clemson University Honors Center
Out of 11 programs in our study with an honors curriculum requirement of 30 credits or higher, only one had a completion rate below 50 percent. The mean curriculum requirement for the six programs with a completion rate of 80 percent or higher was 37 credits. The overall mean for the 31 programs, when we averaged the multiple completion options for programs that offered them, was 27 credits.
One notable finding was that main option programs* with significantly stronger curriculum requirements (mean of 31.8 credits) had an average completion rate of 67.8 percent compared with an average rate of 48.5 percent for programs with multiple (lower) completion requirements (mean of 22.1 credits). This finding seems to contradict previous evidence and assumptions. We note that 24 of the 31 contributors to our study are either flagship or designated land-grant universities, but we have no data related to the differences between their programs and those at other types of institutions. The average U.S. News ranking of the 31 programs was 126, so the study was not limited to “public elites.” The highest ranking of any programs was 52. (In case anyone is curious: There is no significant correlation between the U.S. News rankings and honors completion rates.)
*(Included in main option programs are two programs that, while technically offering two options, have essentially the same total completion credit requirement for each option and have no mid-career option. In addition, option categories were also defined according to the curriculum requirements that honors programs offered for first-year entrants only, except we classified one program with a significant number of sophomore and junior transfers as a multiple option program.)
A precise calculation of curriculum requirements for multiple option programs would have included the proportion of honors students completing each option. In some multiple option programs more than 75 percent of students complete the highest option; in other programs fewer than 10 percent of students do so.
Although program size did not emerge as a clear predictor, the main option programs include four that have fewer than 1,000 honors students. Meanwhile, the smallest multiple option program has an enrollment of more than 1,300 students.
All 16 multiple option programs had an honors thesis option or requirement. The University of Arizona Honors College, the University of Arkansas Honors College, the Oregon State Honors College, and the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts, all with multiple options, do require an honors thesis for all options. Eleven of 15 main option programs had a thesis option, with nine listing a thesis as required. Regression models did not, however, establish that a thesis requirement or option had a significant impact on completion rates for the whole data set. But it appears that the combination of a significant thesis requirement along with relatively low university freshman retention rates (79-83 percent range) might contribute to low completion rates.
As for housing, the six programs with the highest completion rates offered .84 honors residence hall spaces per every first- and second-year honors student. The mean for all 31 programs was .53 residence hall spaces, or slightly more than one dorm space for first-year entrants only.
With respect to university freshman retention rates, the mean rate for the top six programs was 93.3 percent, while the overall mean freshman retention rate for 31 programs was 86.6 percent. Programs with completion rates at or above 58 percent had a mean university freshman retention rate of 88.9 percent; programs with lower completion rates had a mean university freshman retention rate of 84.2 percent. These bare statistics along with statistical models point clearly to freshman retention rates as being the most important institutional factor related to honors completion. They are co-linear with university graduation rates and almost as closely tied to the graduation rates for honors entrants, but are more significant than university graduation rates in relation to honors completion rates.
The top six programs had a mean SAT (ACT adjusted to SAT when necessary) of 1433, versus a mean score of 1406 for all 31 programs. The impact of test scores was, however, stronger for multiple option programs, though their mean test score was lower, at 1396. The mean test score for all main option programs was 1417, a difference of only 21 points. It appears, then, that the much stronger completion rates among main option programs as whole (67.1 percent versus 48.6 percent for multiple option programs) were not the result of proportionately higher test scores.
While all six of the programs with the highest completion rates were main option programs, the six programs with the lowest completion rates were all multiple option programs, with an average completion rate of 34.7 percent. For this group, the mean test score was 1358. Unlike the relationship of test scores to completion rates for the entire data set, it seems likely that, for this lowest subset, test scores would play a significant role; however, we could not confirm such a role statistically. Neither could we do so for the relationship of test scores and completion rates for the top subset.
We also calculate the ratio of enrolled individual honors students to all honors sections, and to total sections in 15 key academic disciplines. Both main and multiple option programs had about the same ratios. These ratios explain why the class size averages for main and multiple option programs are almost exactly the same (24 and 24.4, respectively). However, the absolute numbers of sections offered are much higher for main option programs because, with higher curriculum requirements, they have more students taking classes across all four years.
The six-year graduation rate for honors entrants in main option programs was 88.7 percent; for honors entrants in multiple option programs it was 85.2 percent. This difference would have an impact on university-wide graduation rates. For the six programs with the highest completion rates, the honors graduation rate averaged an impressive 91.3 percent; the honors graduation rate for the six programs with the lowest completion rates was almost eight points lower, at 83.5 percent. Freshman retention rates, test scores, and curriculum have the most impact on honors graduation rates, especially the first two factors, as one would expect. Freshman retention rates and honors graduation rates are remarkably similar.
It is somewhat unusual for honors completion rates to equal or exceed university graduation rates. Eleven of the 31 programs achieved such rates, according to our data. In alphabetical order, they are Arizona State’s Barrett Honors College; Colorado State Honors Program; CUNY Macaulay Honors College; University of Houston Honors College; University of Illinois Campus Honors Program; University of Kansas Honors Program; University of Nevada Reno Honors Program; University of South Carolina Honors College; Texas Tech Honors College; UT Austin Plan II Honors Program; and the Virginia Commonwealth University Honors College.
Texas Tech University
CHOICES, AND MORE CHOICES
The part of the hybrid structure that is related to the “large public research university” component is difficult to measure. Of course the resources allocated by the university make possible the scores of academic departments and sub-disciplines available for majors and fund the honors program, or programs, as well. Relatively generous funding allows for more honors sections, smaller classes, undergraduate research, and more housing, all of which are important to participation.
But the one characteristic of honors programs and the public universities in which they reside that receives little attention, in relation to completion rates, is the enormous range of choices that are available. An honors student at a major public university can choose to persevere through a demanding honors curriculum, or not; can choose to attend every home football game and party, or not; can choose among hundreds of degree plans and change to one that is too time-consuming to allow for honors work, or not; join eight or ten of the two hundred groups on campus, or not; and choose to live off-campus or with a non-honors friend, or not.
Their counterparts at elite private colleges do not have a hybrid structure that allows such a range of choices. Of course they can change majors, or, perhaps, change residence halls. They can also choose to spend too much time partying. But they have a smaller range of majors and college organizations from which to choose; and college sports often have limited appeal. And most do not experience large, sprawling campuses where one can feel overwhelmed, although honors programs certainly make big-campus life more collegial.
A larger range of choices, then, is an inherent piece of the “research university” component of the hybrid model, and in our opinion, it can contribute to lower honors completion rates. Some characteristics of a large public university campus (large class sizes, registration issues, social distractions) often cause parents and students to choose smaller, private colleges even at greater cost. Honors programs mitigate but do not eliminate the potential impact of these factors.
The real question is whether greater choice is ultimately negative or positive. All students make good choices and bad choices; college is often the place where they learn the first big lessons about choice. Clearly, however, students who are mature and focused enough to enjoy the large university experience without overindulgence are most likely to take full advantage of their honors opportunities.
Students should also be strongly motivated on their own if they are to undertake honors study and succeed. Their counterparts at elite private colleges must demonstrate their motivation repeatedly, not least during the application process. Our study shows that, for main option programs only, honors admission requirements that require an honors-specific application or credentials beyond those required for regular university admission do have an impact on completion rates.
Twelve of 15 main option programs require honors-specific application materials. Eleven of 16 multiple option programs do. (Some programs simply gather data from the admissions office and then issue invitations to top students already admitted to the university.)
PUBLIC HONORS VS. PRIVATE ELITES
The issue of honors completion is not only linked to the question: Do honors programs actually deliver? Another question often follows: How do honors programs really compare with private elite colleges?
Above we noted that honors participation, a major statistical (and common-sense) factor in predicting honors completion rates, is enhanced to a large extent by substantial curriculum requirements, frequently including a thesis. Assuming that a student is in a public honors program with both a strong curriculum requirement and a high completion rate, does that student graduate with an education comparable with that attained by a student at an elite private college?
The hybrid model carries with it the assumption that students at elite private colleges complete a rigorous curriculum that usually includes extensive undergraduate research and an honors thesis, and that the honors model should strive to do the same.
Like the perception that honors completion rates should approximate graduation rates at elite colleges, the perception that most or all students at elite colleges necessarily pursue an especially rigorous path is inaccurate.
Princeton is the only university in the Ivy League that requires an undergraduate thesis for graduation. Likewise, Stanford, MIT, Duke, Swarthmore, Amherst, Williams, and other elite schools do not require a thesis. Reed, Chicago, and Bates do have a high number of students who complete an undergraduate thesis. If a student wants to graduate with Latin honors at many elite colleges, or especially to graduate magna cum laude or summa cum laude, or departmental honors, only then would the student have to write a thesis.
Anecdotal information suggests that only 20-25 percent of students at elite colleges complete a thesis or equivalent project. In addition, grades at elite institutions hover around an A-minus average, bringing into question just how much many of them are actually challenged by the courses they take.
So, yes, given appropriate effort, a student in a public honors program with a strong curriculum requirement and a thesis should receive an equivalent education or, perhaps, even a better education than most students at a private elite college. One can argue, however, that the relatively few students pursuing Latin or departmental honors at private elite schools can receive an even better education.
Finally, another comparison: Does the education of an honors student who is in a program with, say, a 55 percent completion rate, a 24-credit completion requirement, and no requirement for a thesis compare with that of his or her counterpart at a private elite college?
The private elite college will have a graduation rate about 5-10 points higher than the graduation rate of public university’s honors students. The student body at the private elite will, on the whole, be “smarter” but less diverse, less “real-life,” economically and otherwise. The honors student may well be challenged more by honors work than most students at the private elite are in regular classes. Both students may receive some financial aid, but at the private elite most of the aid is need-based or leaves funding gaps that could leave the student with large student loans. Meanwhile, the honors student and many of his classmates enjoy a large, renewable merit scholarship.
UT Austin President Gregory Fenves notified alumni and contributors on April 20 that new, four-year financial aid awards will begin in the fall of 2018 and be distributed to new UT students to help them graduate on time and with less debt. The need-based funds are for in-state students and will benefit almost 3,000 additional UT students per year.
“The Texas Advance Commitment (TAC)ensures that Texas students with family incomes of up to $100,000 (Adjusted Gross Income), who have financial need, will receive guaranteed gift aid,” Fenves said. “Eligible students with family incomes up to $30,000 will receive, at a minimum, enough aid to completely cover their full tuition costs.”
In 2016, UT Austin implemented a $15 million increase in financial aid that benefited thousands of current UT students. “This year, we will make that funding permanent,” Fenves said.
According to the TAC website, the amount of funding a student will receive will depend on how much their family AGI is, as well as how much financial aid they have already received through grants and other scholarships.
“For Texas families with an AGI up to $30,000, awards range from $300 to more than $11,000 per year to ensure that tuition is completely covered.
“For Texas families with an AGI between $30,000 and $100,000, award amounts will range from $300 to $2,000 per year depending on the student’s financial need to cover tuition.”
These are four-year renewable awards. To renew the award and remain eligible, a student must:
Submit a FAFSA or TASFA every year
Continue to have a family adjusted gross income of up to $100,000
Continue to have financial need, as demonstrated on the FAFSA or TASFA
Maintain a 2.0 GPA and remain in good standing
The most prestigious merit award at UT Austin is the full-ride Forty Acres Scholarship, provided to 14-18 outstanding applicants each year from a list of more than 50 finalists. About 90 percent of the finalists are from the state of Texas. Students in the UT Plan II Honors Program are well-represented.
The extremely competitive Business Honors Program and the Engineering Honors Program also have Forty Acres Scholars, and Engineering Honors also awards more than $5 million in merit scholarships on its own each year. Most of the honors programs at UT can grant a very limited number of OOS tuition waivers.
Other recent aid initiatives include Completion Grants in varying amounts, awarded to students who are close to graduating but have unmet financial need that would keep them from finishing their degrees.
Impact Scholarships “recognize high potential students from across the state who are making an impact in their local community, who will make an impact on the Forty Acres, and who will make an impact in their communities when they graduate. More than 30 incoming 2018 freshmen were surprised with a $48,000 scholarship ($12,000 per year) to cover the cost of their tuition for the students’ four years at UT Austin.”
“UT Austin has collaborated with RaiseMe to encourage students to consider the university when they begin their college search. The RaiseMe UT Austin collaboration encourages students early in their high school careers to engage in activities to encourage college-going behaviors, while earning micro scholarships for college. This platform enables students to earn up to $2,000 ($500 per year) in scholarship dollars when they attend UT Austin.”
There is a special pleasure associated with writing about honors colleges and programs in the state of Florida, especially when the spring weather in the northwest still feels a lot like November. But if you were a student at Florida Atlantic University’s Wilkes Honors College, you could have walked out of your honors dorm in early spring, strolled across the street, and taken in a spring training game at the Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, home of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Florida Marlins.
And if you happened to be a National Merit Finalist, you would be enjoying a full ride scholarship.
And if you wanted to take only honors classes, with honors students, and faculty dedicated to honors education, you could.
And if you wanted to go to the beach, well, darn, you’d have to drive 10 minutes or ride your bike almost a whole half hour to get to Juno Beach.
And if you wanted a private bedroom in a suite-style dorm, you would have one.
Or you could just head over to the shops and restaurants at Abacoa Village, less than a 10-minute walk away.
More than 50 years ago, colleges began offering honors “programs” and many of these offered a relatively small number of honors seminars and departmental honors courses, with the bulk of honors coursework required in the first two “gen-ed” years.
But in the last three decades honors programs have expanded, and now many universities have established honors colleges that offer special housing, advising, and an expanding array of courses. Even so, only a relatively small number offer their own honors degree or require more than 30 semester credits (or equivalent) in honors courses.
Of the honors programs and colleges that offer their own degrees, four are well-known: the Pitt Honors College, the South Carolina Honors College, the Virginia Echols Scholars Program, and the UT Austin Plan II Honors Program. Yet none of these require a student to take only honors courses to earn the honors degree, even though about a third of the total credits to graduate do come from honors courses.
Now, the Wilkes Honors Collegeat Florida Atlantic University (or, to be precise, near FAU), not only offers its own degrees in a broad range of special majors but also provides honors-only courses to meet the full graduation requirements.
The WHC has its own faculty as well, and the college is actually located in Jupiter, Florida, about 40 miles north of the main FAU campus in Boca Raton.
Note: The WHC will receive a full rated review in the 2018 edition of our book, INSIDE HONORS, due out in the Fall.
“It is important to note that the Wilkes Honors College (WHC) of Florida Atlantic University (FAU) is a free-standing, liberal arts and sciences college” says WHC Dean Dr. Ellen Goldey, whose field is biology. “WHC offers a four-year, all-honors curriculum, taught by its own faculty of thirty-seven full-time members, all of whom hold the highest degree in their field and represent the full range of liberal arts and sciences disciplines.
“Twenty-two other scholars and scientists hold affiliate faculty status in the College. Requirements for the baccalaureate degree include three team-taught interdisciplinary courses, an internship or study abroad experience, and completion of a mentored senior thesis. With a student to faculty ration of 12:1, the WHC [with 424 students] offers the intimacy and close faculty attention of a private college, with access to all of the benefits and opportunities of a large public research university.”
Full completion of an “honors concentration” requires 111 credit hours of honors courses across four years, plus a 6-credit thesis. AP credits can count for up to 45 credit hours.
Students do not have traditional majors but choose pursue a major concentration: American Studies; Anthropology; Art; Biological Anthropology; Biological Chemistry; Biology; Business; Chemistry; Economics; English Literature; Environmental Studies; History; Interdisciplinary Critical Theory; International Studies; Latin American Studies; Law and Society; Marine Biology; Mathematics; Mathematical Science; Medical Humanities; Medical Science; Philosophy; Physics; Political Science; Pre-Med; Psychology; Spanish; Women’s Studies; or Writing.
Engineering and computer science are not offered at WHC, but students who spend the first two years at WHC can follow a pathway to engineering at the Boca Raton campus. Science and research are central to the mission of the college.
“The Senior Honors Thesis is required, so all students conduct original, mentored research, and many of our students conduct research for multiple semesters/years leading up to their thesis,” according to Dean Goldey. “Multi-year research is especially common for our science students (who make up about 70% of our student population). This is possible for a number of reasons unique to our campus: two world-renowned research institutes exist on our campus: the Scripps Research Institute – Florida, the only Scripps Institute outside of California, and the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience, the only Max Planck Institute outside of Europe.
“In addition, our campus houses FAU’s Brain Institute and Jupiter Life Science Initiative, each of which host top NIH-funded scientists. Nearby is FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, providing students interested in marine biology with remarkable research opportunities. Therefore, our undergraduates have unprecedented access to working with scientists in all STEM fields. As a result, since 2002, sixty-six publications, most of them in top-tier, peer-reviewed journals, have included a Wilkes Honors College student as a co-author.” [Emphasis added.]
The mean SAT score for current WHC students is 1280; the mean ACT is 29. The college has a very high honors completion rate (students who complete all honors requirements and graduate) of 82 percent. The four-year grad rate is 70%, far higher than most public universities.
“The Jupiter and Boca Raton campuses are linked by a shuttle service that operates throughout the day. The total undergraduate enrollment of FAU is 25,500 and the main campus also hosts a small Honors Program and some departments offer students the opportunity to earn honors I the major, but these programs are run separately from the Wilkes Honors College.”
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a long and proud history as a leader in public higher education. On the website of the Letters and Sciences (L&S) Honors Program at UW-Madison, Professor William Cronon, history professor, former Director of the L&S Program, and winner of the MacArthur Fellowship and the Bancroft Prize, describes the 10 qualities of a liberal education. He could as well have been describing the highest purpose of all honors colleges and programs. We repeat his words below:
1. They listen and they hear.
This is so simple that perhaps it doesn’t seem worth saying, but in our distracted and over-busy age I think it’s worth declaring that an educated person knows how to pay attention–to people and to the world around them. They work hard to hear what other people are saying. They can follow an argument, track logical reasoning, detect illogic, hear the emotions that lie behind both the logic and the illogic, and ultimately empathize with the person who is feeling those emotions.
2. They read and they understand.
This too is utterly simple to say, but very difficult to achieve, since there are so many many ways of reading in this world. An educated person is literate across a wide range of genres and media. They’re able to read and absorb the New York Times, including the front page, the arts section, the sports section, the business section, the Tuesday science section, and the editorials; they can read not just Time magazine but Scientific American, the New York Review of Books, Better Homes and Gardens, The National Enquirer, and the Reader’s Digest, they can enjoy reading popular fiction ranging from the latest bestseller or detective novel or comic book to a work of classic literature; and they’re engaged by works of nonfiction ranging from biographies to debates about current public policy to the latest discoveries of science. But skilled readers know how to read far more than just words. They know how to enjoy wandering through a great art museum, and are moved by what they hear in a concert hall; they recognize the extraordinary human achievements represented by contemporary athletes working in fields as diverse as tennis and gymnastics and football; they are engaged by classic and contemporary works of theater and cinema, and they find in television a valuable window on popular culture; they can wander through a prairie or woodland and recognize the creatures they encounter there, the meaning of the rocks, and the lay of the land; they can look out across a farmer’s field and know the crops they see there; they can appreciate good food whether they encounter it in a four-star French restaurant or the Pardeeville Watermelon Festival; they recognize fine craftsmanship whether in carpentry or plumbing or auto mechanics; and they can surf the World Wide Web. For an educated person, all of these are special forms of “reading,” profound ways in which the eyes and the ears and the other senses become attuned to the infinite wonders and talents that make up the human and the natural worlds. As with the other items on my list, none of us can possibly attain full competence in all these ways of “reading,” but the mark of an educated person is to be competent in many of them, and curious about all of them. Encountering the world as a fascinating and extraordinarily intricate set of texts to be read and understood: surely this is one of the most important marks of an educated person.
3. They can talk with anyone.
An educated person knows how to talk: they can give a speech, they can make people laugh, they can ask thoughtful questions, and they can hold a conversation with anyone they meet, whether that person is a high school dropout or a Nobel laureate, a child or a patient dying in a hospital, a factory worker or a farmer or a corporate CEO. Moreover, an educated person participates in such conversation not because they like to talk about themselves but because they’re genuinely interested in the other person. A friend of mine says that one of the most important things his father ever told him was that in having a conversation, his job was “to figure out what’s so neat about what the other person does.” It would be hard to imagine a more succinct description of this key quality of an educated person.
4. They can write clearly and persuasively and movingly.
What goes for talking goes for writing as well: an educated person knows the fine craft of putting words on paper.
I’m not talking about the ability to parse a sentence or compose a paragraph or write an essay. I’m talking about the ability to express what is in your mind and in your heart so as to get it across to the person who reads your words so as to teach, persuade, and move that person. I’m talking about writing as a form of touching akin to the touching that happens in a wonderfully exhilarating conversation.
5. They can solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems.
This ability to solve puzzles and problems bespeaks many skills. These include basic numeracy, an ability to handle numbers and to see that many problems which appear to turn on questions of quality can in fact be reinterpreted as subtle problems of quantity. These days a comparable skill involves the ability to run a computer, whether for word processing or doing taxes or playing games. I could go on, but the broader and more practical skills I’m describing here are those of the analyst, the manager, the engineer, the critic: the ability to look at a complicated reality, break it into pieces, and figure out how it works, with the end result of being able to do practical things in the real world. Part of the challenge in this, of course, is the ability to put reality back together again after having broken it down into pieces–for only by so doing can we accomplish practical goals without violating the integrity of the world we’re trying to change.
6. They respect rigor, not so much for its own sake but as a way of seeking truth.
This is to say, truly educated people love learning, but they love wisdom more. They can appreciate a closely reasoned argument without being unduly impressed by mere logic. They understand that knowledge serves values, and they strive to put these two–knowledge and values–into constant dialogue with each other. The ability to recognize true rigor is one of the most important achievements in any education; but it is worthless, even dangerous, if it is not placed in the service of some larger vision that renders it also humane.
7. They practice respect and humility, tolerance and self-criticism.
This is another way of saying that they can feel and understand the power of other people’s dreams and nightmares as well as their own. They have the intellectual range and emotional generosity to step outside their own experience and prejudices to recognize the parochialism of their own viewpoints, thereby opening themselves to perspectives different from their own. This quality of intellectual openness and tolerance is among the most important values we associate with liberal education. From this commitment to tolerance flow all those aspects of a liberal education that celebrate the value of learning foreign languages, exposing oneself to the cultures of distant peoples, learning the history of long-ago times, and encountering the many ways in which men and women have known the sacred and have given names to their gods. From a deep encounter with history and geography and culture comes a rich sense of how very different people are from each other and how much they share in common.
8. They understand how to get things done in the world.
In describing the goal of his Rhodes Scholarships, Cecil Rhodes spoke of trying to identify young people who would spend their lives engaged in what he called “the world’s fight,” by which he meant the struggle to leave the world a better place than one finds it. Learning how to get things done in the world in an effort to leave it a better place is surely one of the most practical and important lessons we can take from our education. It is fraught with peril because the power to act in the world can so easily be abused?but we fool ourselves if we think we can avoid acting, avoid exercising power, avoid joining the world’s fight. Not to act is to abandon to others our own responsibility for trying to make the world a better place, even in the face of what we know to be injustice. And so we study power and ask ourselves what it means to act rightly and wrongly in our use of power. We struggle to try to know how we can do good and avoid doing wrong.
9. They nurture and empower the people around them.
One of the most important things that tempers the exercise of power and shapes right action is surely the recognition that no one ever acts alone. A liberally educated person understands that they belong to a community whose prosperity and well-being is crucial to their own, and they help that community flourish by giving of themselves to make the success of others possible. If we speak of education for freedom, then one of the crucial insights of a liberal education must be that the freedom of the individual is only possible in a free community, and vice versa as well. It is the community that empowers the free individual, just as it is free individuals who lead and empower the community. The fulfillment of high talent, the just exercise of power, the celebration of human diversity: nothing so redeems these things as the recognition that what seem like personal triumphs are in fact the achievements of our common humanity.
10. They follow E. M. Forster’s injunction in the novel Howard’s End: “ONLY CONNECT.”
More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections so as to be able to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways. All the other qualities I’ve described here–listening, reading, writing, talking, puzzle-solving, seeing through other people’s eyes, empowering others, leading–every last one of them is finally about connecting. A liberal education is about gaining the power and insight and the generosity and finally the freedom and the wisdom to connect. If one could pick just one phrase that would answer the question of what it means to be a liberally educated person, surely this would be it: “Only connect.”
In other posts and pages we compare the public and private university academic departmental rankings and list those along with U.S. News overall rankings for the universities. It is often the case that a university’s overall ranking is sharply at odds with its departmental rankings.
In this post we will list the changes in the aggregate academic department rankings for 61 public and private universities during the 2014–2018 time frame. In doing so we hope to give readers some idea whether a given university is trending up or down in the reputation of its academic offerings. A high aggregate ranking indicates that a student could have more options for a major or have the ability to change from one highly-ranked major to another that is also strong. Strong departments in public universities are especially important to honors students because they can take better advantage of the strong department via mentoring and smaller classes.
Academic departments are ranking by university academicians and administrators across the nation. Like any other rankings based on reputation, these are inherently subjective. On the other hand, few individuals are more keenly aware of the personnel changes in their professions or disciplines than members of the academy, whose careers often rely on their own recognized accomplishments, usually by means of publishing or patenting their work.
Our own approach is subjective in that we have chosen to rank only 15 academic disciplines, and most are ranked only at the graduate level. These are biology; business (undergrad); chemistry; computer science; earth sciences; economics; education; engineering (undergrad); English; history; mathematics; physics; political science; psychology; and sociology.
Not every university has ranked programs in all 15 disciplines. In such cases, we only count the ranked disciplines, and the average is based only on those; in other words, their is no penalty if a university does not offer, say, engineering.
In rare cases, a university did not have a ranked department in 2014 but did in 2018. In the list below, the rankings for Emory and Georgia Tech only include departments that were ranked in both years. For example, the history department at Georgia Tech broke into the rankings in 2018 at number 114; this was good in a sense, but the ranking, not present in 2014, had a negative impact.
There are four other special cases. We did not begin tracking Boston College and the University of Rochester until recently, so we do not have a 2014 aggregate ranking for their departments. But because their current aggregate ranking is among the top 60, we included them in the 2018 column. NYU, Carnegie Mellon, and Boston University have been tracked since 2016, so their rankings cover only a two-year period.
Although many universities below had meaningful changes in the aggregate departmental rankings (+2.0/-2.0) during the period, the mean change was only .414. Example: University A had an aggregate departmental ranking of 24.62 in 2018 (very high) but increased only .22 over the 2014 ranking of 24.40.
But University B had an aggregate ranking of 53.65 in 2014 but improved to 49.86 in 2018, a significant change.
The universities below are listed in order of their 2018 aggregate department ranking. Those with an improvement of 2.0 or greater are in bold; those with a decline of 2.0 or greater are in italics.
A few flagship universities–Oklahoma and Alabama, for example– are well-known for the generous merit scholarships, most of which provide the largest awards to national merit scholars or students with very similar qualifications. Now there are several other major players in this game, and all are in the state of Florida, home to several colleges on the rise in national rankings.
In March, Gov. Rick Scott, who is often at odds with higher ed professionals, signed Senate Bill 4. The bill passed the senate with unanimous support in mid-January.
Florida State has risen from 101st in U.S. News rankings for 2011 to 81st in the 2018 rankings.
The bill expands the full-ride Benacquisto Scholarship to include not only in-state National Merit and National Achievement Scholars but also out-of-state winners of these awards.
For out-of-state National Merit Scholars, the award is “equal to the institutional cost of attendance for a resident of this state minus the student’s National Merit Scholarship. Such student is exempt from the payment of out-of-state fees.”
The value of the award for in-state students at the University of Florida is $21,210 per year. For out-of-state students, it is $43,448 per year.
The bill provides $124 million to fund these and other merit awards in 2018-2019 alone. Here is a summary:
Expands merit-based state gift aid for high-performing students:
Reinstates full funding of the Bright Futures Florida Academic Scholar award at 100 percent of tuition and fees, plus $300 in fall and spring semesters to cover instructional materials and other costs, beginning in this 2017-2018 academic year and guarantees funding for 2018 summer term tuition and fees for Bright Futures Florida Academic Scholar awards.
New provisions of the legislation this year reinstate funding for the Bright Futures Florida Medallion Scholar award at 75 percent of tuition and fees for fall and spring semesters, beginning in fall semester of the 2018-2019 academic year and guarantee funding for 2019 summer term tuition and fees for Bright Futures Florida Medallion Scholar awards.
Expands Benacquisto Scholarship awards (full cost of attendance) to recruit out-of-state National Merit Scholar award winners.
“Senate Bill 4 ensures universities remain accountable to Florida taxpayers by refining university performance expectations to incentivize and reward state university performance excellence and recognition in academics, instruction, research, and community accomplishments and achievements,” according to a press release from the Florida senate.
Florida lawmakers have also designated “preeminent” and “emerging preeminent” universities. These universities must meet targets for graduation, retention, and post-graduation employment. Florida and Florida State were the first preeminent universities, and the University of South Florida has now moved from emerging preeminent to preeminent. The University of Central Florida will be next.
According to USF, “The designation will bring not only more prestige but more funding for the university. UF and FSU each received $17.3 million as pre-eminent universities this year, while USF and the University of Central Florida each received $8.7 million as ’emerging’ pre-eminent schools.”
The extra funds are used to elevate the quality and recognition of the universities by hiring eminent faculty members, improving grad and retention rates, and funding STEM programs. The University of Florida, for example, has risen from 58th in the 2011 U.S. News rankings to 42nd in the 2018 rankings. Florida State, meanwhile, has moved from 101st to 81st in the same time frame.
How would you like to spend four years in sunny Tampa, Florida, with beaches nearby, a major airport for travel, a new honors residence hall to live in–and extremely generous merit scholarships?
The Honors College courtyard at USF
By extremely generous, we mean a full ride for National Merit Scholars. As for the housing, Summit Hall just opened in Fall 2017; directly across the street is a new fitness center (The Fit) and pool, and a short walk down the block is The Hub, a new dining facility (seating 400) that allows advance food orders online. And in 2018, students will have no more than a three-minute walk to a new Publix market.
Summit also offers dedicated classroom and study spaces, social areas, resident counselors responsible for programming, and an Honors faculty member in residence.
Students cycling around Tampa Bay
“The Fit is located within The Village on the North side of the USF Tampa campus. A state of the art recreation facility and wellness center, The Fit serves all USF students’ recreational needs.
USF’s “Village” from the air, showing Summit Hall, The Hub, and The Fit.
“This new satellite facility is approximately 19,280 square feet and features a zero entry outdoor pool. Recreation center equipment includes indoor rowing machines, stair climbers, treadmills, elliptical cross trainers, upright and recline exercise bikes, strength machines, and free weights. The wellness center upstairs includes massage chairs and nap pods.”
According to USF, “Summit is part of The Village complex, the largest Public-Private Partnership in Florida higher education to date, featuring state-of-the- art dining and recreational facilities alongside residential halls.” Summit is home to about 500 students who live in traditional double rooms or suite-style rooms with private baths and in-room sinks.
Honors students have student mentors when they arrive.
On the ground floor is a full kitchen, gaming area, media lounge, TV lounge, multipurpose room, conference room, and large laundry room. Each floor also has an activity lounge and study lounge.
Florida students with a 4.0 weighted grade point average, and either a 1400 or higher on the SAT or 30 or higher on the ACT, will be automatically admitted into the Honors College once they are admitted to USF. Out-of-state students who win the Green and Gold Presidential Award (up to $12,000 per year) also earn automatic admission.
“All Honors College students receive $2,000 in academic scholarships. This award is paid in three installments during the students’ academic career:
$600 during the first year after completing the college’s community engagement requirement;
$600 during the second year after completing the college’s global experience requirement;
$800 during the third or fourth year after completing the college’s academic requirements.
“Most Honors College students also qualify for very generous travel scholarships to fund study abroad opportunities.
“In addition, thanks to the generosity of many donors, there are more than 30 competitive scholarships available exclusively to Honors College students.”
Students may apply for these Honors-specific awards as well as National Merit and other awards. These applications typically open in November and are due in January for new students and April for continuing students.
Honors students register for classes with the first group the entire time they are members of the college. The college has an interesting and varied curriculum, including core honors courses, 50 hours of community service, global experiences (extra foreign language credits, study abroad, or certain courses), and a capstone or thesis requirement.
Honors Dean Charles Adams describes the honors college as a “kind of mosaic. Our students come from every academic college on campus, and nearly every major. Our faculty is drawn from a wide variety of disciplines – art history, physics, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, literature, urban planning, architecture, and environmental sciences. And our interdisciplinary curriculum spans the natural sciences, the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts.
“Like a mosaic, the total Honors College experience is greater than the sum of all these disciplinary parts.”
We are pleased to announce that the USF Honors College will be included in the upcoming 2018 edition of Inside Honors, to be published this fall.
Attacks on the humanities and social sciences have increased since the Great Recession, even at a time when the critical thinking skills associated with these disciplines are urgently needed to navigate the sometimes bizarre world of facts, alternative facts, distortions, and outright lies.
Indeed, with the decline of humanities departments, we might be nearing the time when honors colleges and programs will be the focal point of liberal arts education in many public universities. (Below is a discussion of what the nation’s largest honors college is doing to promote the humanities and “civic education.”)
The economic downturn along with rising college tuition costs forced many parents and prospective college students to zero in on courses of study that provide near-term financial results and security. The trend is so strong that, recently, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point announced a plan to eliminate 13 humanities and social science majors.
These include English (excluding English for teacher certification); French; geography and geosciences; German; history (excluding social science for teacher certification); philosophy; political science; sociology; and Spanish.
Studies consistently show that voters with college degrees turn out in greater numbers than those with lower levels of education, but among college-educated voters it is likely that the type of coursework taken in college is an additional contributing factor to greater and more perceptive participation in civic life.
In the higher ed world, this link between education and civic engagement is known as the “civic education hypothesis.” A recent paper by Jacob Andrew Hester of the University of Alabama and Kari Lynn Besing of Indiana University argues persuasively that honors seminars, notably in the humanities and social sciences, “can and often do impart the civic skills that, the civic education hypothesis posits, enable political participation and lead to increased involvement in politics and civic life.”
Many public universities are unable to offer small, discussion-focused classes in these disciplines. The authors contend that larger lecture sections do not develop “the classic skills associated with politics: language, rhetoric, public speaking, debate, and critical thinking.” Students can, however, develop these skills in an honors college or program that offers small seminar sections in Gen Ed courses.
Humanities and social science departments have for centuries sought to inculcate these “classic skills.” For years they have been losing faculty; now, with the elimination of majors, more faculty will be cut and course sections will be reduced, probably leading to larger classes with no opportunity for discussion. Where will these disciplines, with their manifold intersections, survive in a format conducive to civic education? Honors colleges and programs–and the mission is critical.
“Honors education and the humanities share core values, including the importance of deep, sustained reading. Students of history, literature, and philosophy confront complex and demanding texts and develop sophisticated methods of analyzing these texts….Both humanities and honors value not only high levels of reading skill but thoughtful responses to texts and an ability to integrate them into broader knowledge, reaching toward not just learning but wisdom. Such habits run counter to the mindless consumption of infobits.”
Some of the brightest students are math, science, and engineering majors, and their numbers are on the rise. Their analytical skills are seldom in question–indeed, they are often amazing. But the classes in their majors offer little discussion and, as Hester points out, “Math courses [for example] rarely involve discussion or conceptualizing social issues, and very rarely if ever do math instructors connect the development of mathematical skills to political discourse.”
On the other hand, Hester and Besing write, the “University of Alabama (UA) Honors College has an explicit goal of developing ‘agents of social change.’ At the heart of the honors experience are three-hour, interdisciplinary, honors seminars for no more than fifteen students. To graduate with honors, UA students must complete no fewer than six hours of seminar credit, but often students complete more.
“In contrast to the traditional academic lecture, the skills developed in a seminar are uniquely suited for the development and application of citizenship behaviors. In particular, UA honors seminars stress discussion, reflection, writing, and debate, providing students the opportunity to practice each behavior in a controlled environment. Through the seminar experience, honors students are expected to engage the skill sets that produce interest and competence in public affairs more frequently than non-honors students.”
To test their hypothesis that honors programs can promote civic education, Hester and Besing surveyed University of Alabama Honors College students to answer the following question: “To what extent has your experience at this institution contributed to your knowledge, skills, and personal development in the following areas: Voting in local, state, or national elections?”
The conclusion: “Students who engage in a curriculum with more opportunities to develop civic skills are more likely to respond that their institution has contributed to their interest in voting. This finding lends support for the civic engagement hypothesis within the context of an honors education. Specifically, it suggests that students in the UA Honors College are more likely to respond that their education has contributed to their interest in voting. Similarly, our findings suggest that the amount of reading and writing in their curriculum positively correlates with students’ perception that their education has had an impact on their interest in voting.”
“Our argument is that seminar courses are likely to contribute to an honors student’s interest in participating in politics, but we do not believe that honors electives have the same effect. For example, an elective honors lecture course in accounting is likely to be more enriching than a non-honors version of the course but is not likely to build political skills in the same way that a seminar does.”
“On one side of the debate, policymakers, employers, and administrators extol the benefits of a STEM education, e .g ., technological innovation, expansion of research, and the financial payoffs of a labor force with robust science and mathematics skills. On the other side, classical theories of higher education argue that a college degree is about more than the development of a professional skill set on the way to a career; it is about the development of each individual’s ability to function as a citizen in a democratic society. An honors education provides a unique opportunity for higher education institutions to satisfy both sides of the debate, proving sufficient rigor for STEM students while also grounding students in the classical purposes of higher education.”