A Reader’s Testimonial

Editor’s Note: The following is from a review of INSIDE HONORS 2018-2019 on Amazon. I have obtained permission from John Henahan, the reviewer, to publish his thoughts here.

October 19, 2018

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase

Two years ago, I began my journey to help my high achievement son find colleges that were a good fit for him and personal enough to challenge him and help him grow as a person. My initial efforts were deeply disappointing. Most elite colleges were far above our ability to pay, yet somehow the school calculators suggested that we could pay the full cost. Only a select few of the top schools offer merit aid, and in most cases it is very competitive. The options seemed to be middling schools (if we were lucky enough to receive a merit award) or our public in-state university system.

Then I stumbled across the website run by John Willingham, which led me to the previous edition of this book. That book was very helpful on our college search. Now my son is a senior in HS and we are in the application process. Soon we will be in the decision process, and some of the schools we discovered in his guide are on the short list. I bought the updated version of this book to help us in making final decisions. I am happy to say the new guide is even more helpful than the previous edition.

Read below for my review and see if this book might help you as much as it did me.

As college costs continue to skyrocket and elite universities eliminate merit scholarships, the opportunity for high achieving students to attend such universities is diminishing. If your family is not wealthy enough to spend $250,000 or more for 4 years of college, it may seem that a public, in-state university is the only choice.

But what if large classes and a focus on research over teaching are not the right fit for your high achieving child?

Thankfully this amazing book by John Willingham will give you mountains of data on a little known option known as the Public University Honors College or Program. These programs differ considerably in their structure and Mr. Willingham’s guide will help you find options that are the best fit for the type of learner and person your child is.

•Looking for a community of like-minded learners and enhanced access to research? This book will lead you to schools you may not have thought of.

•Looking for lots of seminars with a discussion based, interdisciplinary focus? There are options for that as well.

•What if I told you there was a community of less than 900 committed students in a university with over 25,000 undergrads. These lucky students share small classes, gain enhanced advising from the faculty and are groomed for prestigious awards such as Rhodes Scholarships?

Such programs exist. Often these programs offer generous merit awards to assist the nations brightest young minds to attend. Mr. Willingham does an excellent job of separating the best programs from the also rans. He also teaches the reader how to ask the right questions about other Honors programs that may not be reviewed in the book. That way we are empowered with the tools to evaluate any program.

Honors Programs / Colleges can be the best of both worlds; giving the more intimate learning experience of small school with the resources and experience of a large university. We have found schools that we never would have looked at for regular admission that are strong contenders for his decision next spring.

If you have a high achieving child and are unable to afford the elite private colleges, I strongly recommend this book. In fact, I will be donating my copy to our school guidance office when finish with it.

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Academic Reputation Rankings for 155 National Universities (and What That Means for Honors)

Editor’s Note: The list appears after the introductory section. The list is current as of September 25, 2018.

In a previous post, Based on Academic Reputation Alone, Publics Would Be Higher in U.S. News Rankings, we write that many public universities have a reputation in the academic community that is much higher than their overall ranking by U.S. News. In this post, we will summarize the reasons that prospective honors students and their parents might consider paying more attention to academic reputation than to other factors in the oft-cited rankings. The list also facilitates comparisons of public and private universities.

First, these are factors to consider if the state university’s academic reputation is much stronger than its overall ranking:

1. The overall rankings penalize public universities for their typically larger class sizes, but the average honors class size in our most recent study of honors programs is 24.9 students, much smaller than the average class size for the universities as a whole.  Many of these honors classes are lower-division, where the preponderance of large classes is often the norm. First-year honors seminars and classes for honors-only students average 17.5 students per section.  Result:  the relatively poor rating the whole university might receive for class size is offset for honors students.

2. The overall rankings hit some public universities hard for having relatively low retention and graduation percentages, but freshmen retention rates in honors programs are in the 90% range and higher; meanwhile six-year grad rates for honors entrants average 87%–much higher than the average rates for the universities as a whole.  Result: the lower rates for the universities as a whole are offset for honors students.

3. All public universities suffer in the overall rankings because U.S. News assigns ranking points for both the wealth of the university as a whole and for the impact that wealth has on professors’ salaries, smaller class sizes, etc.  This is a double whammy in its consideration of inputs and outputs separately; only the outputs should be rated.  Result: the outputs for class size (see above) are offset for honors students, and the wealth of the university as an input should not be considered in the first place.

4. For highly-qualified students interested in graduate or professional school, academic reputation and the ability to work with outstanding research faculty are big advantages. Honors students have enhanced opportunities to work with outstanding faculty members even in large research universities, many of which are likely to have strong departmental rankings in the student’s subject area.  Result: honors students are not penalized for the research focus of public research universities; instead, they benefit from it.

5. Many wealthy private elites are generous in funding all, or most, need-based aid, but increasingly offer little or no merit aid. This means that families might receive all the need-based aid they “deserve” according to a federal or institutional calculation and still face annual college costs of $16,000 to $50,000. On the other hand, national scholars and other highly-qualified students can still receive significant merit aid at most public universities. Result: if a public university has an academic reputation equal to that of a wealthy private elite, an honors student could be better off financially and not suffer academically in a public honors program.

But…what if the academic reputation of the public university is lower than that of a private school under consideration?  In this case, the public honors option should offer the following offsets:

1.The net cost advantage of the public university, including merit aid, probably needs to be significant.

2. It is extremely important to evaluate the specific components of the honors program to determine if it provides a major “value-added” advantage–is it, relatively, better than the university as a whole. Often, the answer will be yes. To determine how much better, look at the academic disciplines covered by the honors program, the actual class sizes, retention and graduation rates, research opportunities, and even honors housing and perks, such as priority registration.

The rankings below are on a 5.0 scale, and there are many ties. We have included national universities with reputations rankings between 2.7 and 4.9.

University Acad Rep Ranking
Princeton 4.9 1
Harvard 4.9 1
Stanford 4.9 1
MIT 4.9 1
Yale 4.7 5
Columbia 4.7 5
Caltech 4.7 5
UC Berkeley 4.7 5
Chicago 4.6 9
Johns Hopkins 4.6 9
Cornell 4.6 9
Penn 4.5 12
Duke 4.5 12
Northwestern 4.4 14
Brown 4.4 14
Michigan 4.4 14
Dartmouth 4.3 17
Carnegie Mellon 4.3 17
UCLA 4.3 17
Georgia Tech 4.3 17
Vanderbilt 4.2 21
Virginia 4.2 21
Washington Univ 4.1 23
Rice 4.1 23
Notre Dame 4.1 23
Emory 4.1 23
Georgetown 4.1 23
North Carolina 4.1 23
UT Austin 4.1 23
USC 4 30
UW Madison 4 30
NYU 3.9 32
UC Davis 3.9 32
Illinois 3.9 32
Washington 3.9 32
William & Mary 3.8 36
UC San Diego 3.8 36
Ohio St 3.8 36
Purdue 3.8 36
Tufts 3.7 40
Case Western 3.7 40
UC Irvine 3.7 40
Penn State 3.7 40
Florida 3.7 40
Maryland 3.7 40
Minnesota 3.7 40
Wake Forest 3.6 47
Boston College 3.6 47
Brandeis 3.6 47
Boston Univ 3.6 47
UC Santa Barbara 3.6 47
Georgia 3.6 47
Texas A&M 3.6 47
Indiana 3.6 47
Colorado 3.6 47
Arizona 3.6 47
RPI 3.5 57
Tulane 3.5 57
George Washington 3.5 57
Pitt 3.5 57
Virginia Tech 3.5 57
Iowa 3.5 57
Michigan St 3.5 57
Rochester 3.4 64
U of Miami 3.4 64
Northeastern 3.4 64
Rutgers 3.4 64
Col School of Mines 3.4 64
UMass Amherst 3.4 64
Arizona St 3.4 64
Pepperdine 3.3 71
Syracuse 3.3 71
RIT 3.3 71
Connecticut 3.3 71
Clemson 3.3 71
Auburn 3.3 71
Stony Brook 3.3 71
Iowa St 3.3 71
Oregon 3.3 71
Kansas 3.3 71
Lehigh 3.2 81
Villanova 3.2 81
SMU 3.2 81
American 3.2 81
Delaware 3.2 81
Miami Oh 3.2 81
Alabama 3.2 81
Florida St 3.2 81
NC State 3.2 81
Missouri 3.2 81
Tennessee 3.2 81
Fordham 3.1 92
Brigham Young 3.1 92
Baylor 3.1 92
Pacific 3.1 92
Drexel 3.1 92
UC Santa Cruz 3.1 92
Oklahoma 3.1 92
Nebraska 3.1 92
South Carolina 3.1 92
UC Riverside 3.1 92
Kentucky 3.1 92
George Mason 3.1 92
Utah 3.1 92
WPI 3 105
Marquette 3 105
Loyola Chicago 3 105
Howard 3 105
Binghamton 3 105
Vermont 3 105
UI Chicago 3 105
Univ at Buffalo 3 105
Colorado St 3 105
Temple 3 105
Kansas St 3 105
Clark 2.9 116
Denver 2.9 116
San Diego 2.9 116
DePaul 2.9 116
St. Louis 2.9 116
New Hampshire 2.9 116
Arkansas 2.9 116
Mississippi 2.9 116
San Diego St 2.9 116
Seton Hall 2.9 116
LSU 2.9 116
Yeshiva 2.8 127
Stevens Inst Tech 2.8 127
New School 2.8 127
Hofstra 2.8 127
TCU 2.8 127
St. John’s 2.8 127
Illinois Tech 2.8 127
Texas Tech 2.8 127
TCU 2.8 127
UAB 2.8 127
USF 2.8 127
VCU 2.8 127
UT Dallas 2.8 127
New Mexico 2.8 127
Univ at Albany 2.8 127
UMBC 2.8 127
Cincinnati 2.8 127
URI 2.8 127
Tulsa 2.7 145
Catholic 2.7 145
Clarkson 2.7 145
Michigan Tech 2.7 145
UCF 2.7 145
Georgia State 2.7 145
NJIT 2.7 145
Idaho 2.7 145
UNC Charlotte 2.7 145
UC Merced 2.7 145
Hawaii Manoa 2.7 145

Here is a Formula for Evaluating Honors Completion Rates

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.

More examples:

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.

 

 

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Ten Qualities of a “Liberally” Educated Person

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.”

Will Honors Colleges Be the Last, Best Hope for Humanities and ‘Civic Education’?

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.

A paper by Larry Andrews of Kent State University speaks eloquently to the point:

“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.”

Should Honors Colleges Charge Extra? If So, How Much?

A recent, excellent piece in Inside Higher Edby 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.

But not entirely. Dean Christian Brady, formerly dean of the well-known Schreyer Honors College at Penn State, recognizes the good work of Dean Jacobs at Barrett, but believes honors colleges should not be so physically separated as Barrett is on the ASU campus. He wrote at length about his philosophy on this site two years ago.

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.

University Annual Fee
Oregon 4192.00
Arizona St 1500.00
Oregon St 1353.00
South Carolina 1150.00
Colorado St 1000.00
Massachusetts 600.00
Kentucky 500.00
Arizona 500.00
Houston 500.00
Auburn 437.50
Clemson 437.50
Purdue 200.00
Utah 150.00
Virginia Commonwealth 100.00
Penn St 50.00

The Curious Case of U.S. News and the High School Counselor Metric

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 website Politico 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.

University Peer Only Peer + Counselors Dif +,-
Princeton 1 1 0
Harvard 1 1 0
Yale 1 1 0
Stanford 4 5 -1
Columbia 4 4 0
MIT 4 6 -2
Chicago 7 7 0
Johns Hopkins 8 8 0
Caltech 9 9 0
Penn 9 9 0
Northwestern 11 11 0
Cornell 11 14 -3
Brown 11 11 0
UC Berkeley 11 16 -5
Duke 11 11 0
Dartmouth 16 14 2
Michigan 17 17 0
Vanderbilt 18 17 1
Carnegie Mellon 18 21 -3
Notre Dame 18 17 1
Rice 18 17 1
Virginia 18 21 -3
UCLA 23 25 -2
Wash U 23 21 2
Georgetown 23 21 2
USC 26 25 1
Emory 27 27 0
Georgia Tech 28 30 -2
North Carolina 28 28 0
Tufts 30 28 2
NYU 31 32 -1
Wisconsin 31 34 -3
Boston College 33 31 2
Brandeis 34 33 1
Wake Forest 34 34 0
Illinois 36 38 -2
Florida 36 36 0
Boston Univ 38 36 2
UC Davis 38 38 0
UT Austin 38 46 -8
UCSD 41 43 -2
Washington 41 46 -5
UC Irvine 43 38 5
Case Western 43 43 0
Maryland 43 43 0
Rochester 46 38 8
Ohio State 46 50 -4
Northeastern 48 38 10
UCSB 48 46 2
Penn State 48 50 -2
Tulane 51 46 5
RPI 52 50 2
Lehigh 53 50 3
Purdue 53 55 -2
U of Miami 55 54 1
Minnesota 55 56 -1
Pitt 57 56 1
Texas A&M 58 58 0
Michigan State 58 60 -2
Indiana 58 60 -2
Rutgers New Bruns 61 58 3

 

U.S. News Rankings, Minus the Financial Padding Metrics

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.

University Adj Rank US News Dif +, –
Yale 1 3 2
Harvard 1 2 1
Princeton 1 1 0
Columbia 4 5 1
Stanford 5 5 0
MIT 6 5 -1
Chicago 7 3 -4
Johns Hopkins 8 11 3
Penn 9 8 -1
Caltech 9 10 1
Brown 11 14 3
Northwestern 11 11 0
Duke 11 9 -2
Dartmouth 14 11 -3
Cornell 14 14 0
UC Berkeley 16 21 5
Notre Dame 17 18 1
Rice 17 14 -3
Vanderbilt 17 14 -3
Michigan 17 28 11
Georgetown 21 20 -1
Carnegie Mellon 21 25 4
Virginia 21 25 4
Wash U 21 18 -3
UCLA 25 21 -4
USC 25 21 -4
Emory 27 21 -6
Tufts 28 29 1
North Carolina 28 30 2
Georgia Tech 30 34 4
Boston College 31 32 1
NYU 32 30 -2
Brandeis 33 34 1
Wake Forest 34 27 -7
Wisconsin 34 46 12
Boston Univ 36 37 1
Florida 36 42 6
Illinois 38 52 14
Northeastern 38 40 2
Rochester 38 34 -4
UC Irvine 38 42 4
UC Davis 38 46 8
UCSD 43 42 -1
Maryland 43 61 18
Case Western 43 37 -6
UT Austin 46 56 10
Washington 46 56 10
UCSB 46 37 -9
Tulane 46 40 -6
Ohio State 50 54 4
Lehigh 50 46 -4
RPI 50 42 -8
Penn State 50 52 2
U of Miami 54 46 -8
Purdue 55 56 1
Pitt 56 68 12
Minnesota 56 69 13
Rutgers 58 69 11
Texas A&M 58 69 11
Michigan State 60 81 21
Indiana 60 90 30

 

Georgetown Prof on Finding Best Teaching, Mentoring: Consider Honors Colleges (with a nod to INSIDE HONORS)

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.

“Reformers” Cite Productivity as the Reason for Higher Ed Cuts: Here’s What They Don’t Understand

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:

  1. Real or exaggerated fiscal problems in the states;
  2. Ideological interference for partisan political purposes;
  3. Attacks by “reforming” governors on the fundamental purposes of public higher education;
  4. 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:

  1. They will be unable to compete for top faculty, continue to lose quality and prestige, and be relegated to secondary status.
  2. 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.’”