Q & A with Inaugural Honors Dean at Kentucky’s Lewis Honors College

Editor’s Note: The following detailed Q & A is between editor John Willingham and Dr. Christian M.M. Brady, the inaugural Dean of the Lewis Honors College at the University of Kentucky, where almost half of the inaugural class is receiving full tuition scholarships or greater awards. Dr. Brady is the former longtime Dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State. [Emphases below are added.] Please see earlier post, Kentucky to Open New Honors College with Gift of $23 Million.

Dean Christian M.M. Brady, Lewis Honors College

Editor: Can you say what the expected test score and GPA requirement will be, at least approximately at LHC?

Dean Brady: This year’s incoming class has an average unweighted GPA of 3.86 and an average ACT of 31.4. Please note that these figures are determined after the fact. The LHC does not use standardized test scores, but rather has an holistic selection process. The formal statement on the website currently reads*: “Applicants to the Lewis Honors College typically have at least a 28 ACT or 1310 SAT (M + EBRW) and an unweighted GPA of 3.50 on a 4.00 scale.” These minimums are not guarantees of admission to the program, but act as a benchmark for consideration. All applicants should be aware that Honors admission decisions are made independently of Competitive Academic Scholarships and applications will not be reviewed until a student has been admitted to the University….[A]n applicant’s essay responses carry a large amount of weight in the admission process….The deadline for submission of the application and all required documents is December 1.

*These minimum requirements are likely to change.

Editor: In what ways will the LHC differ from the previous honors program? In what ways the same? Will the number of honors sections be significantly increased?

Lewis Hall

Dean Brady: Honors was created at UK in 1961 and has taken on various forms in its nearly 60 year history. With the establishment of the Lewis Honors College we will continue the more recent progress of a university-wide honors program with certain key features. The development of a foundational course and experience that all Lewis Honors College Scholars will participate in, the expansion of departmental honors courses, and the strengthening of the honors thesis or capstone requirement. Students are also required to do 6 credits of “honors experience,” which can be accomplished via study abroad, service learning, and research. The LHC will have up to ten lecturers who will teach the Foundations Seminar and other honors courses through the relevant departments. We will also have two endowed lectureships: one in the area of organizational behavior and the other in entrepreneurship. There is a new Career Advising Center being created, with a staff of four advisors. There will also be five Academic Advisors. These new staff positions, along with other student programing positions, will all be in place by the end of fall 2017. Staff will be housed in the new Lewis Hall.

Located directly across from the WT Thomas Library and next to “The 90,” a dining and classroom space, Lewis Hall is one of three Honors residence halls and includes 346 beds. It also has over 20,000 square feet of office and meeting space, including four classrooms and a café. There is a spacious outdoor patio venue as well. One particular concern that I think will come to the fore is the commitment to helping students from their earliest moments on campus to discern their pathway forward. (E.g., they might have always thought they should be an engineer because they are good at numbers and like creating things, but they might actually be more of a business person. Or vice versa.) This will be determined and elaborated later in this semester, once we have the opportunity to meet with students and faculty.

Editor: What is the size of the class of 2021, and anticipated size thereafter?

Dean Brady: The incoming class is predicted to be 540 and our target is to maintain 10% of total student population, roughly 2,200 LHC Scholars.

Editor: What is your personal vision for LHC, building on your long experience at Penn State and contacts in the honors community?

Dean Brady: I believe firmly that every honors college and program should reflect what is distinctive and unique about the larger university community of which it is a part…. [W]e should also have a particular distinctiveness that reflects the Kentucky identity. This does not mean that we are regional, quite the opposite. The traits I have already seen in terms of work ethic, humility, and commitment to community are those that we should seek to inculcate in all students. Over the next 5 to 10 years we will build one of the strongest honors colleges in the nation. Founded upon the strength of excellent faculty, great breadth of offerings at UK (it is one of the most comprehensive research universities in the nation, with every professional school, aside from veterinary, within 1 mile of the honors complex), and developing men and women to understand and meet their own potential while benefitting their communities. As some have put it, “doing well while doing good.” The LHC will also become a standard within the nation and the world for innovation….With over thirteen years in the honors community, I look forward to working with our colleagues around the world to continue to learn from their best practices, develop exchange opportunities for our students, and help establish new standards for honors education. We will be submitting a proposal to host the [Honors Education at Research Univerity] HERU meeting in 2019 and I look forward to working with my SEC colleagues, many of whom I have already met through HERU and Big Ten conferences.

Interior view of Lewis Hall

Editor: What are the amounts and availability of merit scholarships, and do LHC students automatically qualify for university scholarships? Does the LHC offer its own merit scholarships?

Dean Brady: I am still learning where exactly all funds reside, but this is certain: the LHC has more than $8MM in scholarships each year. Almost half of all incoming students will have a scholarship at least cover full tuition. We are also preparing to enter into a capital campaign in which developing further scholarship and grant funds (for research, study abroad, and internships) will be a priority.

Editor: Can you tell us more about the honors residence halls and the LHC administration building?

Dean Brady: I referenced the new Lewis Hall earlier. There are also two other Honors residence halls, all built within the last 5 years, that are beautifully appointed with learning spaces for the students on each floor, ground floor lounges, and located next to the library and the new, $112MM Jacobs Science Building.

Another view of the Lewis complex

Editor: Can you tell us more about the size of the LHC staff and their assignments; are any staff dedicated to prestigious awards?

Dean Brady: When fully staffed we will have over 30 staff members including an associate dean for academic affairs, a director of academic affairs, five academic advisors, and up to twelve lecturers. We will have a senior director of student affairs who will oversee a director of career advising and 3 career advisors, a director of recruitment, a director of the Residential College (student programming), and an administrative assistant for student affairs and receptionist. We will also have a budget officer, director of communications, and a philanthropy officer.

Editor: What are the levels of honors completion and the semester-hour requirements for each level; is there a thesis required; is there a limit on honors conversions (contract courses?

Dean Brady: There are some adjustments being made, but the basic requirements beginning in 2018 will be:

• Total of 30 honors credit hours

• Writing, Reading, and Digital Studies/CIS (accelerated two-semester course)

• 2 first year courses + foundational seminar

• 2 upper level courses + directed elective (“Honors students must choose at least three credit hours in HON 301 [an honors ‘pro-seminar’] or departmental Honors sections outside their general discipline of study, including declared majors, minors, and certificate programs at the time of course enrollment.”)

• 6 cr Honors experience study abroad, experiential & service learning, research

• Senior Thesis

Does Participation in an Honors Program Lower GPAs?

A recent paper by a prominent honors director and associate cites three main concerns of parents and students about participating in an honors program:

“They and/or their parents believe that honors classes at the university level require more work than non-honors courses, are more stressful, and will adversely affect their self-image and grade point average.”

Some students, the authors write, “are likely basing their belief on the experience they had with Advanced Placement (AP) classes in their high schools. Although AP classes are not specifically designed to be more work or more difficult, at their worst they can be little more than that.”

The authors of the paper, “The Effect of Honors Courses on Grade Point Averages, ” are Dr. Art Spisak, Director of Honors at Iowa the University of Iowa and Suzanne Carter Squires, a Churchill Scholar and former Director of Assessment for Iowa honors. Dr. Spisak is also the current President of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC).

As the title states, the authors focused on whether honors participation does in fact lower GPAs, probably the overriding concern of parents and students.

After reviewing and citing previous related studies and conducting two in-depth studies of their own at a large public research university, the authors conclude that “the findings show that the perception of honors courses as adversely affecting GPAs is invalid.”

The previous studies indicated that honors and non-honors students of equal measured ability had about the same GPAs or the honors students had higher GPAs in the first year and about the same GPAs going forward.

An important finding of one study also showed that honors students have “higher self-concepts than do high-ability students not participating in an honors program.”

The first study by Spisak and Squires “began with a cohort of 786 students that was unusual in its makeup and, for that reason, especially apt for the purpose. All 786 students were part of an honors program at a large, public, R1 university. They all had earned their way into the program via a minimum composite ACT/ SAT score of 29/1300 and a high school GPA of at least 3.8. Once in the program, they had to maintain a university GPA of 3.33 to maintain membership.”

“Of the original cohort of 786 honors students, the study considered only the 473 students who had remained in the program for at least two years.” This would appear to indicate a low retention rate, but the program at the time automatically enrolled students who met the stats requirements and many dropped out. Most honors programs use invitation-only approaches now.

“The findings from this first study were that the mean GPA of honors students who took honors classes (3.74) was statistically the same as that of honors students who took no honors courses (3.70).

The second study by Spisak and Squires differed from the first in that it compared honors students’ GPAs in their honors classes to their GPAs for all their classes. The first study, in contrast, compared GPAs of one group of honors-eligible students who took honors courses to those of another group of honors-eligible students who had not taken honors courses.

The results showed that “honors students’ GPAs in their honors courses are statistically the same as their GPAs in all their classes. Thus, the conclusion for the second study is the same as for the first study: honors courses do not adversely affect the GPAs of honors students.”

So…if honors students in honors classes have the same GPAs (or even higher) that students of equal ability in non-honors classes, can one conclude that honors classes are not competitive or demanding?

The likely answer: honors classes typically cover more material and in greater depth than non-honors classes, but smaller class sizes, greater engagement with professors, and encouragement or competition from peers create more interest and focus.

How Alive Are the Liberal Arts in Honors Programs?

The short answer: very alive.

After an extended period during which more and more students have felt the need–regardless of personal interest and aptitude–to major in business, engineering, or computer-related fields, the liberal arts, especially the humanities, have faced declining enrollment.

The impact that this trend has had on personal growth and enlightened participation in civic life is evident, given the tone and outcome of the presidential election.

In the meantime, several prominent public universities have endured attacks on their humanities departments and commitment to learning for learning’s sake, most notably UT Austin, Florida universities, and, very recently, UW Madison. Most states have dramatically reduced financial support for their universities; some regents have used the real or manufactured budget crisis as a pretext for attacking non-vocational disciplines.

But the liberal arts and, yes, the core humanities that are essential to the liberal arts, have survived in public honors colleges and programs. Some students express resentment that, in order to be in an honors program, they must take a series of interdisciplinary seminars and electives in the humanities. Under pressure from parents or highly focused on their chosen vocational discipline, they want “to  get on with it” and reach a point where they can start making real money and pay back those student loans.

This is understandable. But honors educators know that almost every bright student is in many ways unformed and searching for paths of meaning in their lives. One course in history, or philosophy, or literature, or maybe in religious studies or film, can guide a student toward a lifetime of serious inquiry, self reflection, and greater compassion for others. These and other courses in the liberal arts reinforce the application of informed judgment to facts that are often contradictory or in flux.

Consensus is emerging that for many students, “We don’t need more STEM majors. We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training.” Indeed, this is one of the two or three major advantages of honors programs. STEM majors who otherwise would take few liberal arts courses (and an extremely small number of humanities classes), must take them as members of a university-wide honors college or program.

But one other major–business–could likely benefit even more from greater exposure to the liberal arts and, again, to the humanities

Recent research shows that “critical thinking,” measured after adjusting for entrance test scores, shows the greatest gains for students in the liberal arts.  Engineering and technology students have high raw entrance test scores and strong critical thinking ability, but after adjusting for the effect of the high test scores, their critical thinking skills are relatively lower.

Business majors do not receive high raw or adjusted scores in critical thinking. Given that a plurality of bachelor’s degrees are awarded in business subjects, this is a matter of significant concern.

English is the discipline most offered by honors programs. This is so because many of the required English classes have a heavy writing component, often associated with the study of rhetoric. In these classes the humanities and vocational mastery come together in a way, for the most successful and most fulfilled professionals often have outstanding communication skills and a heightened sensitivity to the thoughts and needs of others.

So what are the “liberal arts”? The answer to this question varies, but here we will include the following disciplines, all of which are traditional core offerings in liberal arts colleges (humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences):

Humanities: English, history, philosophy, fine arts, foreign languages, religious studies, film, classics. Sciences: math, biology, chemistry, physics, geology. Social Sciences: sociology, anthropology, gender studies, psychology, communications, political science, economics, and geography.

(One can see that many of these can be, and often are, “vocational” in themselves.)

Using the above as our “liberal arts,” we used data gathered for our most recent book, Inside Honors, which included 4,460 honors sections. Of these, we found that 59% were in the liberal arts, not counting interdisciplinary seminars, which accounted for another 26% of sections. Most of these seminars had a humanities focus, so about 85% of honors sections were in the liberal arts.

By discipline, English had the highest percentage of sections, even when sections in business, engineering, and technology are included. Math and business disciplines combined had about the same number of sections as English.

The STEM disciplines are strongly represented, however, accounting for 25% of honors sections. (But the science and math sections counted here are also part of the overall liberal arts group.)

Engineering and technology, considered separately, make up  8% of honors sections. Admittedly, the “regular” courses in these disciplines are usually rigorous enough in themselves.

Not all of the humanities are strongly represented, however, with classics, film, and religious studies combined counting for only 1.4% of honors sections. In fairness, the classics do feature prominently in many interdisciplinary seminars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lee Honors College at Western Michigan: A Strong Combination of Classroom and Experiential Learning

Although the Lee Honors College at Western Michigan University offers more than 40 sections of all-honors classes, with an average class size of fewer than 16 students, perhaps the most impressive feature of the college is the range of inventive co-curricular learning options available to the college’s 1,785 students.

As a reminder, the term co-curricular refers to learning experiences that complement classroom learning, whether for credit or not. Increasingly, co-curricular activities provide credits for participants.

Dr. Carla Koretsky, Dean of the college, tells us that one of the co-curricular options is the Study in the States “placed-based” learning series.  Offered for three credit hours, mostly in the summer, the courses are capped at 8-10 honors students.

“Students, a faculty member and an honors college staff member travel for 7-10 days to study something outside of the state of Michigan,” Dean Koretsky says. “Students receive honors, and typically also general education credit for these courses. Students pay the regular tuition rate and the honors college pays all expenses associated with the travel for every student in the course (airfares, ground transportation, lodging, meals, incidentals).”

Recent courses include:

  • Garbage in Gotham: Anthropology/environmental studies course in New York City.
  • Texas Tour: Business course in Austin, San Antonio and Houston, TX.
  • Entrepreneurship: Business course in Austin, TX and Boulder, CO with additional travel to Detroit, Grand Rapids, Chicago and Cincinnati.
  • Vue d’Afrique: French film course to the African Film festival in Montreal.
  • Disney Pilgrimage: Interdisciplinary course traveling from Chicago, IL to Los Angeles, CA

The college also offers a weekly Lyceum Lecture series, featuring a weekly talk by a faculty, staff or community expert. Recent themes include Climate Change, Race Matters, Living with Uncertainty, Globally Engaged Citizenship and Sustainable Energy Future.

A Metropolitan series takes small groups of students to museums and cultural events. “Recent groups have visited the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the Art Prize Competition in Grand Rapids and the Arab American Museum in Dearborn,” Dean Koretsky says.

A Peer Student Success Team, comprised of upperclassmen who serve as mentors to incoming freshmen, “hold office hours in the honors residence hall, help with our events and organize at least four volunteer group events for honors students each semester.

“The honors college has a Common Read book for freshmen, who are given a hard copy of the book during summer orientation. We begin fall welcome week with a facilitated discussion of our book and invite the author to campus in the fall semester to discuss the book and meet with honors students. Recent books include The Events of October, the Life of Pi, Tell the Wolves I’m Home and Unbroken.”

The honors college has also spear-headed a major lecture series, Raise Your Voice, open to all students and the public, but especially promoted to honors students. “The series theme is understanding and preventing gender-based violence and hostility. Speakers include Anita Hill, Jackson Katz, Wagatwe Wanjuki, Soraya Chemaly, Tatayana Fazlalizadeh and Gloria Steinem.”

The presence of extensive co-curricular offerings is no indication that classroom learning has been slighted at the college. It is unusual for honors colleges and programs to offer only all-honors classes–sections that are not “mixed” or “contract” courses where honors students may been the minority of those enrolled. All the honors sections at the college are all-honors sections.

Even better news: all of the major disciplines are included. English, history, math, chemistry, philosophy, business, psychology, economics, political science, and health-related classes are all a part of the course schedule.

In addition, the college has an honors residential hall (Ackley) and includes priority registration for honors students during all four years of study. Prospective honors students often succeed in the Medallion Scholarship competition. “All competitors receive a 1-year $3000 scholarship and automatic admission to the honors college. Semi-finalists receive $6000 over 2 years and approximately 20 finalists receive $60,000 over 4 years. Finalists who complete an undergraduate degree in less than four years may use remaining funds for graduate study.

“We also offer honors scholarships for study abroad (up to $3000) and to pursue research and creative activities (up to $3000). These are awarded through a competitive application process.”

Prospective students should know that the minimum admissions requirements are a high school GPA of 3.6 and ACT score of 26.  The six-year graduation rate for honors entrants is 81 percent.

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.

William and Mary Creates an Inclusive Path to “Highest Honors”

The William and Mary Scholars Undergraduate Research Experience: Excellence with a Mind Towards Equity, by Anne H. Charity Hudley, Cheryl Dickter, and Hannah Franz of The College of William and Mary. ahchar@wm.edu

Editor’s Note: On other pages, we note that the College of William and Mary, like UC Berkeley, does not have a separate honors college. The entire college could be considered an “honors” experience given the relatively small size of the undergraduate population and the record of high achievement that every student brings to the campus. But while other public institutions pursue an honors path that to some extent separates honors students from non-honors students, especially during the first two years of study, the William and Mary Scholars Program seeks out students who can benefit from more inclusiveness and participation. Read more from the authors, below….

In 2014, U.S. News & World Report listed the College of William and Mary as the top public institution with a strong commitment to undergraduate teaching. In 2013, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported that William and Mary had the smallest gap between white and black students’ graduation rates of all public institutions.

From 2003-2013, William and Mary has been successful in increasing the diversity of our undergraduate student body, growing from 14% students of color in 2001 to 30% today, including 7.1% Black or African American students and 9.1% Hispanic/Latin students. One contributor to this achievement is the William and Mary Scholars Award. This award was established in 2002, and uses institutional resources to provide over forty in-state merit scholarships per enrolling class to academically distinguished students who have overcome unusual adversity and/or are members of groups who contribute to campus diversity.

In addition to academic merit, the selection process for William and Mary Scholars takes into account consideration of diversity, adversity and financial need. The William and Mary Scholars Award has been successful in drawing outstanding students to the College of William and Mary. In the past five years, two of the five Ann Callahan Chappell Award winners for the most outstanding Phi Beta Kappa initiate at The College of William and Mary were African-American women who were William and Mary Scholars.

By taking into account both academic achievement and the lingering impact of educational inequality, William and Mary is able to address Frank Bruni’s observation–that “honors colleges in some ways replicate, within a public school, the kind of stratified, status-conscious dynamic at play in the hierarchy of private schools”–by attracting strong students without furthering the divide. (The Bruni column was generally supportive of honors colleges.)

In order to fully support students chosen for the scholarship and to provide even greater access for students who are historically underrepresented, The William and Mary Scholars Undergraduate Research Experience (WMSURE) was created in 2010. This program provides formalized mentoring, programming, and increased research opportunities in order to nurture the academic skills and leadership potential of all students at the College of William and Mary, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds. While the program supports the William and Mary Scholars, it is not exclusive to only them.

WMSURE provides weekly workshops and comprehensive advising and mentoring on a regular basis, all of which engage scholars throughout all four years of their college experience. The program has several unique features when compared to honors programs at other universities.

First, the program is led by tenured faculty with noted reputations for research excellence, which provides students with consistent advising and mentoring relationships with faculty at the college who are knowledgeable about many different areas of academic achievement and can help to demystify the academy for the scholars.

Second, the program is also personalized around each student’s academic and professional goals, with a focus on finding the right resources for each student based on their individual research and academic interests.

Finally, WMSURE is research-based, in that data are consistently collected regarding students’ academic and personal needs to ensure that appropriate programming and services are provided and to measure academic and social success and challenges. Our evidence shows that prior to the creation of WMSURE, underrepresented students were less informed about research at William and Mary, were less likely to engage in research, and were less likely to have a mentor.

Today on our campus, students who participate in WMSURE are more likely to engage in research, more likely to consider graduate school, feel more supported, are more likely to have an articulated mentor, and are more likely to feel supported in their academic endeavors.

What Students Face

Underrepresented students face multiple challenges which may affect their access to academic success upon arriving on campus, including solo status, stereotype threat, impostor syndrome, colorism, and microaggressions. In WMSURE, we address these challenges for underrepresented scholars in the academy. In particular, we detail how such experiences can negatively impact academic performance, self-esteem, overall well-being, and sense of belonging. Then, we give students multiple tools for use in confronting challenges in a comprehensive manner that attends to both academic and social needs. We have an emphasis on community-based learning and using research for the public good.

The Office of Admissions makes decisions about the William and Mary Scholar Award. But we tell students: If you receive a William and Mary Scholarship award, you should be proud of your accomplishments and all that you bring to the William and Mary community. But we also recognize that achievements in high school and standardized test scores do not even begin to tell your story. What makes you WMSURE? You do. The fact that you are here at William and Mary, one of the top ten public universities in the country makes you WMSURE. How do you become part of WMSURE? You just have to show up!

And show up they do. We see between 20-40 people at our weekly workshops, and just as many appear in WMSURE faculty office hours, in lab meetings, in dress rehearsals, and in other campus activities.

Our inclusive approach mitigates the gatekeeper effect and under-matching—students who could have been in honors or more challenging courses, or at a magnet school—but were not referred or declined to attend them because they received inaccurate or incomplete information.

WMSURE students have published with faculty, written honors theses, presented at national and international conferences, and contributed to books, including the book Highest Honors that is being written by WMSURE program chairs Anne Charity Hudley and Cheryl Dickter, along with graduate assistant Hannah Franz, so that more students may be privy to the insights of the undergraduate hidden curriculum, the unwritten and often unintended lessons that students learn in college.

Highest Honors: A Guide to Undergraduate Research prepares students for undergraduate research in college. The text is designed to help students take full advantage of the academic resources and experiences that the university setting has to offer so that students will actively be on the path to achieving highest honors/summa cum laude. The book is designed to appeal to all first and second year college students and as such, has a specific focus on the experiences of students who are underrepresented in the academy. Highest Honors provides students with detailed research-based tools that will prepare them for the social and academic transition from high school classes to college research.

So Just How Big Are Those Honors Classes, Anyway?

In another post, Honors College, Honors Program–What’s the Difference?, we noted among other things that the average honors class size in public honors colleges is about 19 students per section, and in public honors programs it is about 22 students per section.  These averages are for all honors courses only, not for all courses an honors student might take on the way to graduation.

The averages above include data for the many smaller honors seminars, often interdisciplinary rather than discipline-focused.  The average class size for seminars is in the 14-19 student range.  Please bear in mind that seminars often count for gen ed requirements, and their small size is a big advantage, aside from the advantages of their interdisciplinary approach.

But what about honors class size averages for sections in the major academic disciplines?   Partly in preparation for our new book, we took took the honors sections from 16 of the public universities we will review in the book and then calculated the actual enrollment averages in each section.  The academic disciplines we included were biology and biochemistry; chemistry; computer science and engineering; economics; English; history; math; physics; political science; and psychology.  The honors colleges and programs included three of the largest in the nation, along with several smaller programs.

Given the perilous state of the humanities, it is no surprise that the smallest classes are in English and history, while the largest are in computer science, chemistry, biology, and political science.

Here are the results of our recent analysis:

Biology–63 sections, average of 38.6 students.  (Bear in mind that many intro biology classes are not all-honors and are generally much larger, 100 or more, with separate weekly honors discussion sections, each with 10-20 students.  Same for into chemistry.)

Chemistry–33 sections, average of 40.3 students.

Computer Science/Computer Engineering–18 sections, average 54.3 students.

Economics–49 sections, average of 31.2 students.  (This is in most cases a significant improvement over enrollment in non-honors class sections.)

English–110 sections, average of 19.4 students.  This does not include many even smaller honors seminars that have a humanities focus.

History–58 sections, average of 16.2 students.  This likewise does not include many even smaller honors seminars with a humanities/history emphasis.

Math–44 sections, average of 24.7 students.  Most of the math sections are in calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, topology, vector analysis.

Physics–30 sections, average of 25.5 students.  Again, many honors programs do not offer honors classes in intro physics, so a student could still have large non-honors classes in that course.

Political Science–19 sections, average 34.4 students.  The striking point here is the small number of polysci sections offered–just over 1 per program, per semester on average.  The major has become extremely popular, so many sections outside of honors could be quite large.

Psychology–60 sections, average 28.9 students.  Another popular major, but more class availability in general.

Honors College, Honors Program–What’s the Difference?

Revised, September 8, 2014…

After a lengthy analysis of staffing, class schedules, and honors curriculum in preparation for our new book to be released this Fall, we can say that there are significant differences between honors colleges and honors programs.

On the other hand, despite these differences, both honors colleges and honors programs are equally effective in graduating students who go on to win major awards and acceptance to prestigious graduate program.

In this post, we will focus on the differences between the 25 honors programs we have reviewed and the 25 honors colleges also under review.  All of the colleges and programs are at major public national universities, including most flagship institutions.  The total honors student enrollment at the 50 universities is approximately 90,000.

Here are some figures that illustrate the differences between honors colleges and honors programs:

1. Size–The 25 honors colleges have an average enrollment of 1,900 students, versus the average enrollment of 1,492 in the 25 honors programs.

2. Staff– Honors colleges have more staff members per student.  In honors colleges, the ratio of students to honors staff is 141.7. In honors programs, the ratio is 162.4. It is possible that honors programs have more indirect staff support from, say, the dean of undergraduate education, but the ratios above are based on actual honors staffing figures in 2013-2014.

3. Structure–The additional staff at honors colleges appears to contribute to the higher percentage of a “blended” honors structure at honors colleges.  By a blended structure, we mean that there are both honors-only seminars (often interdisciplinary in nature) offered solely by the honors college, along with many honors classes focused primarily on specific academic disciplines. Fourteen of the 25 honors colleges fall into this category, versus 10 of the 25 honors programs.  Six honors colleges have a department-based honors structure, while eight honors programs feature this more decentralized structure.  This means that, speaking in general terms only, honors programs might be more appealing for students who are more focused on their majors and less interested in the broader approach typical of most seminars.

A relatively small number of colleges and programs have a core structure.  The core programs are almost exclusively based on a set of honors seminars and colloquia designed to offer interdisciplinary perspectives on the humanities, social sciences, math and science, and fine arts.  Often, these courses count for and replace the Gen Ed courses taken by non-honors students.  Honors core programs may or may not require an honors thesis.  Most do not offer a lot of upper-division or department-centered courses.  Five honors colleges are based on the core model, versus seven honors programs.

Average Honors Class size–Honors colleges have a better ratio of students per class section, using data from the Spring 2014 term.  (For colleges on the quarter system, we use a formula to equalize quarter sections with semester sections.)  What honors colleges and programs say about having smaller classes is mostly true:  Honors colleges average about 19.8 students per section, and honors programs about 22.5 students per section for all honors courses.  Please know, however, that both honors colleges and honors programs have some large classes, typically in science.  They offset this fact by offering multiple small all-honors discussion sections and labs.  We did not count discussion sections or labs in calculating class size, only the main class sections.

There is disagreement about the relative value of honors contract classes.  Clearly, such classes do not require all-honors enrollment or staffing and can be accomplished without reducing the “credit” a given professor receives for teaching larger classes, in which a few honors students do extra work.  They are therefore extremely cost-effective for the university.  They can also be a boon for some honors students, who find that they can in fact get into that hard class they need to graduate, even if it’s not an all-honors class.  On average, honors colleges allow 7 contract credit hours and honors programs allow 8.9 contract credits.  (Some colleges and programs, however, allow up to 30 hours of contract credit.)  It is very important for prospective students to gain an understanding of the types of courses that can be counted as honors credit.

Big Fish in the Pond–Using a formula that compares average (mean) honors test scores to average test scores for students in the university as a whole, and students in the top quarter of the university as a whole, we find that there is a greater gap between students in honors colleges and their non-honors classmates than there is between students in honors programs and the non-honors students in their universities. So, based on test scores along, honors college students have a somewhat higher chance of being regarded as the “smart kids” on campus.

Honors housing–Here, although there are many exceptions, honors colleges tend to offer more amenities such as suite-style dorms.  One reason for this is that many prominent public universities have made a conscious decision not to contribute to the “big fish” perception and do not provide separate honors housing at all.  In this group are UCLA, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Please bear in mind that these statistics describe general characteristics of honors colleges and honors programs.  There are many honors programs, especially, that mirror all of the features associated with honors colleges.

 

Honors “Contract” Courses Can Be Valuable if…

Occasionally, we report on the developing scholarly research related to honors colleges and programs, much if it published by the Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council (JNCHC).

As we have been analyzing honors curricula and course offerings for the next edition of our book, we have again observed that most honors programs give students the option to “contract” with a faculty member to do more in-depth work in a non-honors section in order to receive honors credit.

In her 2005 JNCHC article, “Contracting in Honors,”Kambra Bolch, then with the Texas Tech Honors College, sought to answer this question: “Does contracting really measure up to the expectations of the honors experience?”

Now well established, the Texas Tech Honors College dealt forthrightly with this question a decade ago, and Ms. Bolch deftly recounts the experience and then offers answers that should be of interest to prospective honors students and their parents, who should inquire about the frequency and quality of honors contract courses.  (Please see “Solutions” below.)

“Despite a significant growth in the college’s resources and a corresponding increase in its ability to offer stand-alone honors courses, a number of students, particularly in the engineering and science disciplines, still had difficulty completing the required 24 hours of honors coursework to earn an Honors College designation on their diploma,” she wrote.

Another factor leading to more honors contracts was that dual credit and advanced placement credit gave many honors students a chance to apply those credits to general education requirements instead of taking honors courses.  These students then had to find ways to meet the 24-hour requirement, and the use of contract courses increased.  (Now, the college does not allow advanced placement test scores to replace honors courses.)

But the increase in contract courses carried a series of problems.  The typical honors component of non-honors classes was an extra paper, but these were often turned in at the very end of the term, with little previous contact between the professor and honors student, “a situation that seemed antithetical to the expectations of an honors experience.”

Then even more serious issues arose.  Some students submitted plagiarized papers at the last minute, leaving little time to discover the dishonesty.  The quality of legitimate contract work was also uneven.

Accepting that honors contracts had to be retained in some form, the college began a series of meetings, including faculty.   In the end, they came up with the following steps to ensure that honors contracts did in fact meet “the expectations of the honors experience.”

SOLUTIONS…

To ensure the quality of contract credits, the college alone certifies the contract work as worthy of honors credit even though faculty retained the authority to issue whatever grades they thought appropriate.

More importantly, the contract forms themselves became much more detailed and specific.

The information sheet “emphasizes three components of the additional work required for the contract: 1) that the student complete a substantial paper or project (15-20 page research paper or a project of equivalent time/effort); 2) that the student share the knowledge/skills/experiences gained through the paper or project with an audience of some sort; and 3) that the faculty member and student have regular contact outside of class to discuss the student’s progress and answer questions regarding the paper or project.”

In addition, the student is “required to state specifically on the contract form how he or she will meet each of the three requirements. At the midpoint of the semester, the faculty member is asked to provide a brief report on the contact he or she has had with the student and to assess the student’s progress to date.”  An honors college staff person, or persons, is designated to work with all contracts and professors, thereby developing valuable knowledge about courses, grading, requirements, and the range of disciplines open to contracts.

Finally, the college began allow honors students to enroll in graduate courses for honors credit.  Because the courses almost always feature seminar engagement along with rigorous reading and research requirements, they definitely meet the expectations of the honors experience.

Choosing an Honors Program: Twenty Questions to Ask

We have noticed that many students apply to prominent public universities and then, almost as an afterthought, begin to wonder if the honors program at University A makes that school a better choice than regular admission to the higher-ranked University B.

A far better way to look at honors is to evaluate programs in some depth at the earliest stages of the college application process.  Otherwise, students realize too late that the honors application or scholarship deadlines have already passed, or find themselves searching for anecdotal evidence with little time to spare.

Honors colleges and programs differ greatly in size, quality, curricula, housing, overall philosophy, and financial aid opportunities.  Working through the maze of differences can be a daunting prospect, especially when time is an issue.   When it comes to honors programs, many of the most important questions can be answered only by consideration of those all-important “details.”  Below are twenty steps that should be very useful in helping you make the best decision regardless of whether you want a public or private university honors program:

1. Match basic admission requirements with your test scores, GPA, and essays.

2. Request actual average admission statistics.  These may vary greatly from basic (minimum) requirements.  In general, honors students will have average test scores 6-10% higher than the 25th percentile of accepted students for the university as a whole.  The 25th percentile scores are available from U.S. News and other sources.  If there is a wide gap between the basic and average stats, and your stats are much closer to the basic stats, then you can probably find a better option.  That said, if the admissions requirements are more holistic and less stats-driven, you may be fine.

3. Determine the size of the honors program (mean size in major public universities is ~1,700, but programs may be as small as 140 or as large as 6,000).

4. Ask the fish-to-pond question: Are honors students big fish in a small pond or is the pond full of sizable fish?  The more selective the university as a whole, the bigger all the fish.   Some parents and prospective students might prefer an honors program that stands apart on campus, while others might like a program that is more expansive.  Perhaps if you are not sold on the overall quality of the university, you might choose the former; if you think the university as a whole has a strong student body or you simply prefer a non-elitist atmosphere, then you might like the latter.

5. Assess the quality of the city, surrounding area, and climate.

6. Determine the curriculum requirements as a percentage of graduation requirements. Generally, the number of honors hours should be at least 25% of the total required for graduation.

7. Determine the number of honors sections per semester/quarter.

8. Evaluate the reputation of university in preferred or likely areas of study.

9. Ask whether there are special research opportunities for undergrads and if an honors thesis is required.

10. Ask about staff size, the number of advisers, and availability to students, as well as special freshmen orientation programs.

If the above check out, then:

1.  Ask about the number of honors sections, by discipline, per semester or quarter and try to verify; determine the average enrollment in honors seminars and sections.  The average class size can vary greatly among honors programs, from fewer than 10 students per class to more than 35.  Most seminars and all-honors sections should have around 25 students or fewer, although in almost every case you will find that there are a few large classes, notably in first-year sciences and economics.  Some honors programs have few or no honors courses in certain disciplines.

2.  Ask about the types of honors sections: all-honors seminars; all-honors sections offered by honors or a department; “mixed” sections of honors and non-honors students; and the percentage of honors contract/option/conversion courses per average student at time of graduation.

Mixed sections may be small or, more often, large sections that can have more than 100 total students in 3-4 credit hour courses.  Of these students, maybe 10-20 could be honors students, who then meet for one hour a week (rarely, two hours a week) in separate “discussion” or “recitation” sections.  These sections can be led by tenured professors but are typically led by adjunct faculty or graduate students.  Ask how many sections are mixed, and of these, ask how many of the main section classes are large.

Contract courses are regular–and often larger–sections with both honors and non-honors students, mostly the latter, in which honors students do extra work or have their own discussion sections.  While most programs have some contract courses, they are generally more prevalent in large honors colleges and programs.  There are advantages and disadvantages associated with contract courses.  They can speed graduation, offer more flexibility, expand the influence of honors in the university as a whole, and foster contacts with mentoring faculty. But their quality and size may vary greatly.

3. Ask about tuition discounts, scholarships, continuing financial aid, including special recruitment of national merit scholars.

4. Determine if there is priority registration for honors students and, if so, type of priority registration.

5. Research the types of special honors housing for freshmen and upperclassmen, if any, including basic floor plans, on-site laundry, suite or corridor-style rooms, air-conditioning, location of nearest dining hall, proximity of major classroom buildings (especially in preferred disciplines), and availability of shuttles and other transportation on campus. If there is no special honors housing, it is often a sign that the honors program does not want to foster the big fish in a small pond atmosphere.  The absence of priority registration may be an additional sign.

6. Research the study-abroad opportunities; some universities have a separate division for study-abroad programs.

7. Ask about the presence and involvement of advisers for prestigious scholarships, such as Goldwater, Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, etc., and program success in achieving these awards.

8.  Ask about additional fees for participation in honors and ask about the percentage of honors “completers.”  These are honors students who actually complete all of the honors requirements and graduate with some form of honors.  There are many programs that have completion rates as low as 25% and a few with completion rates higher than 80%.  (This is different from the graduation rate, which, for freshmen honors entrants, is anywhere from 79%–99% after six years.)

9. Now, try to assess the quality of the honors program versus quality of university as a whole.

10. VISIT the college if you have not done so and try to question current honors students.  Some of the information mentioned above can only come from a personal visit or be learned after a student has been accepted.

Surprise: Public Universities Have the Best Academic Departments

We have completed an analysis of academic departmental rankings published by U.S. News, and one result may be a surprise: of the top 56 universities with the best academic departments, 34 are public.   After the top dozen or so universities, including familiar names such as Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, the list is dominated by public institutions.

Part of the reason is that the public universities below are leading research institutions, while a few of the elite private schools that show up in the top 25 of the U.S. News rankings are not really research-intensive.  Examples are Dartmouth, Georgetown, and Notre Dame.  Yet most of the other elite private schools do have a research focus along with many respected graduate courses of study.

Prospective honors students, more than most other students who are considering college, should pay close attention to the rankings of the academic departments in the schools they are considering.  Why do we believe that this is so?

1.  As the somewhat surprising departmental statistics below demonstrate, some of the strongest academic departments in the nation are at public research universities, where the disadvantages of large schools are mitigated by offering honors students relatively small honors communities and classes.

2. Conventional national college rankings often emphasize financial resources, selectivity, small class size, and graduation rates to the point that the actual quality of academic departments can be obscured.  But public university honors students typically have smaller classes and much higher graduation rates than those for the university as a whole.

3. Honors students interested in post-graduate research options should know that there is a strong correlation between highly-rated academic departments and the number of National Science Graduate Research Grants as well as the number of Fulbright Student awards.  Both of these awards are allied with careers in research and academe.

4.  Strong academic departments and an emphasis on undergraduate research, which is often a component of honors programs, also promotes high achievement in earning undergraduate awards, such as Goldwater scholarships.

Having listed the points we above, we also advise prospective honors students to ask honors staff about the reach of the honors curriculum and whether the best professors in strong academic departments are available to teach at least upper-division honors sections.

The departmental rankings below may include up to 15 departments from each university: undergraduate business, undergraduate engineering, and graduate rankings for biological sciences, chemistry, computer science, earth science, economics, education, English, history, math, physics, political science, psychology, and sociology.

Universities whose stats do not include all 15 of the departments above may not do so because (1) they might not offer undergraduate or graduate degrees in the subject (e.g., business, education, engineering); or (2) the ranking of the department is in the lower third of the rankings and are not listed at all.

On the left is the cumulative ranking of academic departments, by institution.  Next we list the number of departments included in the analysis.  Then the actual rating is listed, with, for example, the 2.71 rating for Stanford indicating that of the 14 ranked departments, the overall average was 2.71 on a scale of 1 to 200, with 1 being the best national ranking a department can receive.  Thus the “average” department at Stanford is in the top 3 nationally.  The final listing is the 2014 U.S. News rank of the university as a whole.  Please note that if you are a student of the U.S. News rankings, the cumulative academic department rating is not the same as the “peer assessment” used in the rankings, though there is some correlation.  Public universities are in bold type.

 Dept Rank                   #Depts        Rating                 US News                     

1-Stanford

14

2.71

5

2-UC Berkeley

15

3.13

20

3-MIT

12

4.58

7

4-Harvard

14

5.57

2

5-Caltech

8

5.63

10

6-Princeton

13

5.77

.

1

7-Michigan

15

9.47

28

8-Columbia

13

10.85

4

9-Cornell

14

11.64

16

10-Chicago

12

11.92

5

11-Yale

13

12.00

3

12-Wisconsin

15

12.73

41

13-UCLA

14

12.86

23

14-UT-Austin

15

14.27

52

15-Penn

15

18.53

7

16-Northwestern

14

19.00

12

17-Illinois

15

19.33

41

18-Johns Hopkins

14

19.36

12

19-Washington

15

21.67

52

20-Duke

13

22.38

7

21-Minnesota

15

23.07

69

22-UC San Diego

14

23.29

39

23-Ohio State

15

25.47

52

24-North Carolina

15

25.80

30

25-Penn State

15

25.93

37

26-Brown

13

27.08

14

27-Maryland

15

27.40

62

28-Indiana

14

29.07

75

29-Wash U

13

29.08

14

30-UC Davis

14

30.57

39

31-Virginia

15

32.47

23

32-Georgia Tech

9

32.78

36

33-Emory

11

33.00

20

34-Vanderbilt

14

33.29

17

35-Rice

12

33.83

18

36-UC Irvine

13

34.31

49

37-UC Santa Barb

14

35.64

41

38-Colorado

15

37.00

86

39–USC

15

37.73

23

40-Arizona

15

38.20

119

41-Purdue

15

40.33

68

42-Dartmouth

8

42.75

10

43-Michigan State

15

43.20

73

44-Texas A&M

15

43.80

69

45-Rutgers

15

43.87

63

46-Florida

15

44.00

49

47-Pitt

15

46.00

62

48-Iowa

15

46.93

73

49-Stony Brook

14

47.08

82

50-Arizona State

15

47.27

142

51-Oregon

14

49.36

109

52-Massachusetts

14

52.14

91

53-Notre Dame

13

52.23

18

54-Virginia Tech

12

57.58

69

55-Illinois Chicago

15

58.07

128

56-Georgetown

6

59.33

20