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.
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.”
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.”
A recent, excellent piece inInside Higher Ed, by Rick Seltzer, explores the pros and cons of public honors colleges’ charging extra fees (or differential tuition) in order to enroll and serve increasing numbers of honors students.
(Here we can pretty much confine the discussion to honors colleges because honors programs rarely charge significant fees for attendance.)
At the end of this post is a list of honors colleges that have significant honors fees, and the fee amounts.
Much of the piece involves Barrett Honors College at Arizona State, and Barrett Dean Mark Jacobs is a proselytizer for charging the extra fees and is proud that Barrett has been successful, telling Inside Higher Ed that “when you’re an educational institution, the best you can talk about in terms of the effect outside your own institution is hoping that good ideas you have might be copied and used by other people, or translated to fit their context.”
Ten years ago, Barrett enrollment cost each student $250 a semester. Now, the fee is $750 a semester, or $1,500 per academic year. With the cost of in-state attendance at ASU now at $28,491, the honors fee adds about 5% to the total cost.
One of Jacobs’ arguments mirrors those of almost all public university honors deans and directors: The “liberal arts college within a major research university” model is a bargain for students who would pay much more to attend a good liberal arts college or a strong private elite research university. So, even with the extra charge, public honors remains “a smoking deal” and “an absolute steal.”
Jacobs is in a position to know whereof he speaks; he has bachelors with high honors from Harvard, a Ph.D. from Stanford, and he had an endowed chair in biology at Swarthmore.
Another argument is that state funding cuts have put public universities in a bind, and the extra fees for honors help expand those and other programs at the universities. In addition, public honors colleges (and programs) give highly-talented students in-state options that are in great need given the increased selectivity and arbitrary admission standards of elite universities.
One thing not in doubt is whether the practice at Barrett has helped financially. “In 2017,” Seltzer writes, “the college draws 36 percent of its budget from general operations and 4 percent from endowment income. A whopping 60 percent of the budget comes from the fee.”
On the other hand, Bette Bottoms, dean emerita at the University of Illinois Honors College and a longtime leader in honors education, maintains that universities should value their honors colleges enough to put institutional money into them and not ask students to pay the costs.
“Now, if you tell me that Arizona [State] has some way of waiving the fee for lower-income students, that makes the model more palatable, but I still don’t agree with it,” she told Seltzer. “Do incoming students know this? We never charged a fee, and I found that prospective students and their families often expected it anyway — I’m sure this kept some students from even considering applying.”
“Arizona State must set aside 17 percent of its honors college fees for financial aid,” Seltzer writes, and, according to Jacobs, “Barrett students can receive need-based and non-need-based aid from the university’s central financial aid office. Students can also receive aid from the honors college in the event their financial aid packages are not enough to allow them to pay the fee for being honors students.”
The Barrett model has influenced at least a few other honors colleges. The new Lewis Honors College at the University of Kentucky will charge a $500 annual fee. The namesake of the LHC, Tom Lewis, donated $23 million to his alma mater to create the new honors college. He is also an Arizona resident and longtime supporter of Barrett, who likely believes the Barrett model is a good one to follow.
The issue of elitism at honors colleges (and programs) is also a factor. Even though Barrett goes out of its way to connect hundreds of ASU faculty, honors students, and non-honors students through the extensive use of honors contract courses, the physical separation of the honors campus can be a negative for some while it is a positive for others.
Our own view is that the extra fees can have an overall positive impact if they do not exceed, say, 5% of the in-state cost of university attendance and if the honors colleges have resources to assist students for whom the fee is a burden.
Another way to measure the impact of the extra fees is to analyze the extent to which they might discourage students from completing the full honors curriculum.
The honors college that charges the most in extra fees (actually differential tuition) is the Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon. There, students face an extra charge of $4,192 per year, which amounts to a 15.8% increase in tuition. Some scholarships to offset the very considerable charge are available after the first year.
It may be noteworthy that Barrett and Clark have similar student profile stats, though Clark students have somewhat higher test scores (new SAT 1410 to new SAT 1350). The six-year grad rate for Barrett honors entrants was 89% and for Clark entrants, 82%.
Oregon State Honors College has a differential charge of $1,353, not too much below the fee at Barrett. Oregon State honors entrants had a six-year grad rate of 87.6%, with a sizable portion of engineering students. The average (new) SAT at the OSU Honors College is about 1430.
While this is not definitive data, it only makes sense that the greater the differential cost, the more honors students will be forced to balance the value of their honors education against the cost or simply conclude that they cannot afford honors at all.
Except for the nuts and bolts metrics used by U.S. News in its annual college rankings (grad and retention rates, class sizes) all of the other ranking categories receive strong criticism from education writers and the academic community. A category since 2009, the high school counselor rankings of colleges’ reputations fly a bit under the radar. But the fact is, they do appear to have a curious impact on the rankings.
A recent, excellent article about the rankings on the websitePolitico argues that the counselor rankings rely heavily on “guidance counselors from highly ranked high schools, while many high schools in less affluent areas have few or no counselors.”
According the the Washington Post, the rankings do include “surveys of 2,200 counselors at public high schools, each of which was a gold, silver or bronze medal winner in the 2016 edition of the U.S. News Best High Schools rankings.” U.S. News also surveys “the largest private independent schools nationwide.”
This already elite group of respondents is even more restrictive than it seems: “The counselors’ one-year response rate was 7 percent for the spring 2017 surveys,” according to U.S News.
Using the nuts and bolts categories and reputation rankings alone, as in this recent post, and separating out the peer reputation rankings from the high school counselor rankings, we can see the impact the counselor rankings have.
Using a sample of 60 national universities that are either in the top 50 nationally or have at least 7 nationally rated academic departments, we found that the high school counselor rankings of private colleges were about 11% higher than those of university peer rankings of the same colleges. (Twenty-five of the schools are public, while 35 are private.)
The fact is, high school counselor rankings on the whole run higher than those of peer reviewers. But counselor rankings of public colleges were only 6.5% higher than peer rankings.
The main question at hand is, do these (few) counselors have more useful knowledge about national universities that peer reviewers have? Peer reviewers have a response rate of more than 40%; this much broader response rate (in absolute percentages and, almost certainly, demographically) should yield a more accurate assessment from peers. (Even more accurate would be the academic departmental rankings, but those are not included.)
Related questions are, how much marketing information do counselors receive, and do they receive a disproportionate share from private colleges? Do they tour private colleges more frequently? Peer reviewers are not without biases, either, but they are not recipients of marketing information from other colleges. Finally, do counselors rely more on…U.S. News rankings?
Again using the same data set we cite above, a side by side comparison of peer and counselor assessments reveals the following:
–Of the 14 universities that rose in rankings at least two places, three were public universities (21.4%) while 11 (78.6%) were private universities. (The percentage of universities in the sample is 41.7% public and 58.3% private.)
–Of the 17 universities that fell in rankings at least two places, 14 (82.4%) were public while three (17.6%) were private.
Below is a table showing the side-by-side comparison. Please bear in mind that the rankings are our adjusted rankings, not the actual U.S. News rankings.
The critics of the annual–and hugely popular–U.S. News Best Colleges rankings are vocal, large in number, well-armed with data, and mostly unavailing. Here is another attempt, based on the idea that the “financial” metrics used in the rankings distort the results. If Harvard has a zillion dollars, Harvard will have smaller classes than Mammoth State University with its meager funding per student. But why give Harvard credit for the zillion dollars and the smaller classes, when the smaller classes are the “output” that really matters?
So…the adjusted rankings below use the major non-financial metrics only: Peer assessment of academic reputation; high school counselor recommendations; graduation rates; retention rates; and class sizes. No acceptance rates or test score-related metrics are used. The impact of both are reflected in the output metric of graduation rates. (A separate post will discuss the curious disparities in high school counselor recommendations.)
Each of the universities on the list is in the top 50 in the 2018 U.S. News rankings with at least 7 ranked departments or has an aggregate academic department ranking of 50 or better across a minimum of 7 departments. The departments ranked are business and engineering (undergrad); biology, chemistry, computer science, earth sciences, economics, education, English, history, math, physics, political science, psychology, and sociology (graduate level).
Therefore, even though department ranking data are not included in the adjusted rankings below, they are used as part of the eligibility requirements for inclusion.
Below are the adjusted rankings of 60 national universities, in the order of the adjusted ranking. Also shown are the U.S. News rankings for 2018 and the difference between the adjusted rankings and those of the magazine. We used data from U.S News for the categories listed above, with the same weight assigned to each category. All categories were then standardized and aggregated. After the first fifteen or so schools, some of the disparities are striking, especially for the last half.
Editor’s Note: In a piece in the Washington Post, Georgetown University Professor Jacques Berlinerblau, author of the book COLLEGE CONFIDENTIAL, offered several tips for prospective students who want a good return on investment, smaller classes, strong teaching, and undergraduate research and mentoring. Below are his comments on honors colleges, and a nod to our own book, INSIDE HONORS.
“Honors Colleges: In many ways an Honors College represents an institutional effort to deal with all the deficiencies of American undergraduate education alluded to above. These units (here is a handy guide) are usually carved out from larger schools. They may possess a “war chest” which lets them lure high-performing applicants away from highly ranked places where professorial buy-in will be minimal. In short, these administrations try to identify the best scholar-teachers on the Quad (regardless of their politics), place them in small classroom settings, and properly train them and incentivize them to completely commit to undergraduate teaching. That’s what all colleges should be doing. And that’s what all parents should be looking for.”
It would be hard to find a stronger endorsement of honors colleges.
After a years-long, bruising battle in Texas between the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems on one side and then-Gov. Rick Perry on the other, the two flagships have emerged more or less intact and relatively free of political meddling.
But that doesn’t mean that the overall fight to maintain quality in public universities is over. Far from it. Now comes news that Missouri and Iowa are joining Wisconsin in considering severe restrictions on faculty tenure, including the elimination of tenure tracks for new faculty hires.
Here are the four main factors involved in this ongoing battle:
Real or exaggerated fiscal problems in the states;
Ideological interference for partisan political purposes;
Attacks by “reforming” governors on the fundamental purposes of public higher education;
Disregarding what is unique about universities, while trying to turn them into business focused on “productivity.”
If far-right politicians in Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin and like-minded officials across the nation succeed, then here is what will happen to public universities:
They will be unable to compete for top faculty, continue to lose quality and prestige, and be relegated to secondary status.
The purported vocational goals of the reformers (more business and STEM grads who can earn higher salaries) will in fact be undercut when public university grads find that their degrees are not regarded as highly as they are now.
Since the Great Recession, most states have struggled to keep abreast of legitimate public needs. In the early years of the recession, states enacted severe cuts in higher education. Often, the most severe cuts occurred in states with very conservative governors who saw an opportunity to leverage the recession into a continuing attack on the liberal arts and a concomitant turn toward vocationalism in higher ed.
But as the economy has rebounded, only some states have slowly begun to increase higher ed funding. Others, such as Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri, are renewing attacks on higher ed.
Here partisanship and ideology enter the picture. For the extreme right, public education should be almost entirely vocational, and “real” education should occur in the more expensive, private colleges, and mainly for those who can afford them. The fixation on private governance even drives these advocates to favor for-profit private “colleges” even though support for these dysfunctional businesses drives up federal loan losses.
Clearly, not funding public higher ed and reducing quality in public colleges is antithetical to the essential purposes of state universities: providing both access and quality to students in their states.
Moves to eliminate tenure are an example of the tone-deafness of some politicians when it comes to the differences between universities and the corporate business world.
The need to fire inept or irresponsible employees in the corporate world is a given. Almost always, such dismissals are unrelated to philosophical and ideological issues or to the expression of differing, even seemingly bizarre opinions.
The firing of a faculty member can come down to objective performance issues; but far more than in the case of firing a business employee, it can also be a punitive act against free expression or the result of a misguided bias against certain academic disciplines.
Of late, those disciplines–the humanities, mainly–are probably the very disciplines that need to be supported in an era of “fake news.” Do humanities and liberal arts majors find more high paying jobs than, say, chemical engineering graduates? No, but do engineering graduates need significant exposure to the humanities? The answer is yes, even if, or especially if, the engineering students disagree with what the humanities offer. At least they are more likely to think about why the disagree.
It must be said, however, that some alleged reformers see no value in having engineers–or any student, for that matter–do much critical thinking beyond that required by their (preferably) vocational major.
Arguments grounded in the need for “productivity” and the general uselessness of academic research have been an abiding feature of far-right attacks on public higher ed.
Yet there is a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research that not only describes the uniqueness of universities as institutions but concludes that they are in fact rational actors in making decisions about faculty pay in relation to both research and teaching loads. They are productive, but productive within the very special context of a university.
The paper does not disagree that sometimes research professors are rewarded more than those who lack a research pedigree. But in the end, “prizing research output over teaching doesn’t necessarily affect educational quality.”
According to an excellent summary of the research by Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed, “the paper seems to dispute assertions that higher education spending — at least on instruction — is wasteful or inefficient.”
The authors note that “Departments in research universities (the more so the more elite) must pay high salaries in order to employ research-productive faculty. These faculty, in turn, contribute most to the universities’ goals (which include teaching as well as research) by following their comparative advantage and teaching less, and also teaching in ways that are complementary with research — notably graduate courses.”
And one of those goals is to maintain or enhance academic credibility. Flaherty writes that the “authors predict that because ‘scholarly reputation and output’ at research-intensive institutions are shaped by largely by research, highly paid faculty members within a department ‘do relatively little teaching, on average.’ And whatever teaching they do ‘has relatively high consumption value, either directly or as an input into research.’”
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.
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.
Updated to include new U.S. News rankings for 2018. Listed below are the yearly rankings and overall average rankings of 129 national universities that were included in the first tier of the U.S. News Best Colleges from 2011 through 2018. There are 64 public and 65 private universities. The list below not only shows the average rankings over this eight-year period but also lists the number of places lost or gained by each university.
As a group, the private universities have had an average increase in the rankings of .15 places, while the public universities have had an average decline of 1.7, demonstrating what we have observed in the past–public universities are, in general, not on an upward trajectory in the rankings. Yet this is something of an improvement over the last set we published, covering the years 2010–2017. That set show that public universities lost an average five placed during that eight-year period while private colleges gain two places.
A big reason for the negative impact on public university rankings is surely the severe budget cuts by legislatures across the country in the wake of the Great Recession. As economic times improve, one would hope that much more of the state funding will be restored. But, realistically, that is not likely to happen, and increasing reliance on private funds by public colleges appears to be the only way not to fall behind–or, at least, not to fall farther behind.
The rate of decline in public university rankings appears to be improving, except that in absolute terms the average rankings remain significantly lower than in 2009.
While we appreciate the massive amount of data that the U.S. News rankings provide on class sizes, grad rates, retention rates, and even selectivity, on the whole the rankings fail to evaluate efficiency (the number of students who receive a high-quality education at a relatively low cost) and should not use selectivity and wealth as metrics.
One reason for the sudden rise in a school’s ranking is increased “gaming” of the rankings. Some institutions, public and private, but mostly the latter, have geared their marketing and merit aid to increase the number of applicants and lower their acceptance rates accordingly. This makes them more “selective” and helps to improve their rankings.
Northeastern University, for example, has risen 40 places in the rankings since 2010, and 56 places since 2008. How likely is it that in such a short period of time Northeastern has actually improved so dramatically, from 96th to 40th? (The ranking did, however, drop one place (39 to 40) from 2017 to 2018.
We will try to explore further “gaming” scenarios, but for 2018 the most notable changes, up or down, follow. Note: We are not asserting that the gains below are due to “gaming,” although, in part, they may be. Although the overall average for public universities has fallen, several public institutions have had sizable gains. It should be noted, however, that many with such gains were ranked extremely low in 2011, thus allowing more room for improvement.
Up since 2011: NC State +30; Northeastern +29; UMass Amherst +28; Arizona State +24; Florida State +23; SUNY Buffalo +23; TCU +21; Boston University +19; Stevens Inst of Tech +17; Brigham Young +14; Loyola Chicago +14; Oklahoma +14; UConn +13; Tulane +11; Florida +11. We do know that the state of Florida has made a strong effort to raise the profile of their leading universities.
Down since 2011: Yeshia -44 (how is this possible?); Alabama -31; UC Riverside -30; Missouri -26; Dayton -25; Iowa State -21; Nebraska -20; Auburn -18; Marquette -15; Indiana -15; Kansas -11; Pacific -11; UT Austin -11. (UT Austin struggles with grad rates; one reason might be rule that the top 7%-8% of students, by class rank, make up 75% of total admits, even with significantly lower test scores than other applicants from highly competitive high schools that do not make the top 7%-8%.)
The U.S. News rankings not only over-emphasize the metrics related to a university’s financial resources but also, especially in the last five years or so, reward selectivity when, in fact, the results of the selectivity are already considered. Why should Stanford be rewarded for having an acceptance rate o f 5% and be rewarded for having high graduation and retention rates, both of which are largely the result of selectivity. Using test scores as a factor in predicting what grad rates should be is fine, as is rewarding or penalizing schools for exceeding or not meeting such predictions. But the high scores themselves and the low acceptance percentages merely duplicate what is more properly measured by outcomes.
We will have more to say on these issues in the future. But for now, here are the historical rankings, the average of each school across eight years, and the increase or decline of each school from 2011 through 2018. The universities are listed in order of their average ranking across the years.