Inside Honors: What 9,000 Class Sections Can Tell You

By John Willingham
Editor, Public University Honors

When parents and prospective students (not to mention college junkies) want to “know” about a college, what they want most is to get a sense of what it’s “really like,” the inside story so to speak.

Most college rankings focus only on what can be measured: test scores, class sizes, financial resources, selectivity, grad and retention rates, the salaries graduates can receive. Some non-numerical ratings–the famous Fiske guide, for example–focus less on formal measures and do offer narratives that provide impressionistic glimpses of campus life. Taken together, rankings and good rating guidebooks provide much excellent information.

But surely a big part of the “what’s it really like” story has to be not only the graduation requirements but also the actual classes and coursework required for graduation. How many courses are available in your student’s proposed major? Are there interdisciplinary seminars? How about access to mentors and support for undergraduate research, both more likely if small classes are offered.

Yes, you can read about courses if you work your way through undergraduate catalogues. In some cases there will be course descriptions. But what you probably won’t find in catalogues are the number of sections and the actual enrollment in each one. What I have found during five years of analyzing public honors programs and colleges is that one cannot come close to understanding the real nature of these programs without poring over the actual class sections–and course descriptions.

When the first edition of A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs appeared in April 2012, I realized that it was a tentative step in the process of trying to analyze and report on the most important characteristics of honors programs in prominent state universities.

What I failed to understand was just how “tentative” that first effort was.

The original emphasis was on honors curriculum and completion requirements, and the overriding idea was that the more honors classes a student had to take, the more that student would benefit from what I called “honors contacts” at the time.  Honors students would have more contact with professors in smaller honors classes; they would find a ready cohort of serious students like themselves; they would have far more research opportunities, again allowing more contact with professors.

If honors programs sought to provide an Ivy or liberal arts education in the midst of a large public university setting, then the extent of honors contacts within that larger context would measure how well the program was meeting its mission.

I continue to believe the curriculum completion requirements are at the heart of an honors program or college. But those requirements only quantify the total number of credits a student must earn to graduate; they do not speak to the range of honors courses offered in each academic discipline, or to how small the classes really are, or to the type of class experiences that are available (seminars, lectures, labs).  The credit requirements do not yield an impression of how creative a program is or how interesting its courses may be.

In other words, the emphasis on the bare curriculum completion requirements does not get at the heart (some might say guts) of an honors program.

Now, with more than 90 percent of our data for the new 2016 edition in house, we have begun to explore the inside of honors education at 60 public universities, which means a somewhat tedious analysis of data for approximately 9,000 honors class sections.

Here are examples of what we learn from this work:

  1. How to develop basic classifications for the honors programs and colleges. The courses tell us whether a given program is a “core” program, a “blended program,” or a “department-based” program. A relatively small program with small, honors-only seminars along with relatively few set science and math requirements is a core program. Generally larger programs (some with more than 6,000 students) can be “blended” or “department-based.” If blended, they will have a large number of all-honors seminars, perhaps one-third to one-half of the total honors courses available, and the remainder of courses will be more narrowly defined by the academic departments. Department-based programs might offer a few seminars but offer most honors sections through the academic departments. If a blended or department-based program has a lot of “mixed” class sections (honors students plus non-honors students in the same sections), we can then pass along this information to readers, who may or may not care that many sections are mixed.
  2. How to asses the size of class sections. We have actual enrollment levels for the 9,000 class sections we review. This will allow us to tell readers about the overall average class size for all honors sections, including mixed sections which tend to be larger. From this, readers will gain an idea of how much close interaction with “honors contacts” is likely.
  3. How many honors classes are “contract” or “add-on” sections. Contract sections require an honors student to sign an agreement with the instructor specifying the extra work the student will do to earn honors credit. Most contract sections have only a very few honors students. The same is generally true of “add-on” sections, but these are somewhat more formal in that they are regularly offered term after term and have more established requirements that honors students have to meet to earn honors credit in a regular section. Readers may or may not like the idea of this type of section. Are they less rigorous? Is the flexibility they allow worth it? Our data indicate that in our data set of 60 programs, these types of classes may be about 25 percent of total honors sections. Please note that about two-thirds of programs offer contract or add-on sections for credit, but only five or six offer them on a large scale.

So…to know what “it’s really like really like” in honors program A or honors college B, you have to put yourself in the classroom, so to speak, and get a feel for the characteristics and subject matter of those class sections. Do you want the feel of a small, closely-knit program with a well-defined curriculum and rigorous seminars? Do you want the intimacy of seminars but also the nuts and bolts offered by a broad range of departmental honors classes? Or, are you mainly interested in having as many class choices in as many disciplines as possible, even if some of your classes will be mixed and relatively larger than the all-honors sections.

Once we have finished our “classroom work,” we should be able to give you a better sense of what 60 prominent honors programs and colleges are, in fact, like.

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Florida, Maryland, and Washington Will Soon Use Only the New Coalition App

Three prominent public universities–Florida, Maryland, and Washington–will begin using the application process developed by the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success (CAAS), a recently formed consortium of more than 90 leading public and private colleges and universities.

Our guess is that the three schools will opt for the new process in summer 2016.  (Note: the University of Washington never used the Common App previously.)

Note: A list of all public universities listed as CAAS members as of March 9, 2016, is below.

According to a Scott Jaschik article in Insider Higher Ed, member schools “are creating a platform for new online portfolios for high school students. The idea is to encourage ninth graders begin thinking more deeply about what they are learning or accomplishing in high school, to create new ways for college admissions officers, community organizations and others to coach them, and to help them emerge in their senior years with a body of work that can be used to help identify appropriate colleges and apply to them. Organizers of the new effort hope it will minimize some of the disadvantages faced by high school students without access to well-staffed guidance offices or private counselors.”

To qualify, as of now, for membership in the CAAS, a school must have a six-year graduation rate of 70 percent or higher. Several prominent public universities that qualify have not yet joined, among them all of the University of California institutions, UT Austin, and UW Madison.

Jaschik writes that the UC campuses have not joined because of present concerns about the ability of community college transfers to use the process effectively. UC schools have strong and highly successful articulation agreements with the state’s community colleges.

UT Austin questions the fairness of the new process, at least in its initial form. “Associate director of admissions Michael Orr said UT did not apply to the coalition because of criticisms of the programs, including the coalition’s failure to consult with high school counselors,” according to Jameson Pitts, writing for the Daily Texan. 

“The argument within the community … has been that there is a concern that students with means will be the ones that will be able to take advantage of that opportunity the most,” Orr said. He did not rule out the possibility of joining the Coalition if concerns about fairness can be resolved.

Several voices in the higher ed community have opposed the Coalition, saying that students are already over-focused on preparing for college admission and that the new approach will favor more privileged students.

Our question is this: If the new process is designed to help students who cannot afford college counselors and lack effective guidance in their schools, how will the students find out about the process in the first place and learn to use it to good effect?

Whatever the possible shortcomings may be, the CAAS has gained the membership so far of the 36 public universities listed below. It is important to note that only Florida, Maryland, and Washington have decided to use the CAAS process exclusively. The other schools listed below will, as of this date, use either the Common App or the CAAS process.

Clemson
College of New Jersey
Connecticut
Florida
Georgia
Georgia Tech
Illinois
Illinois St
Indiana
Iowa
James Madison
Mary Washington
Maryland
Miami Ohio
Michigan
Michigan St
Minnesota
Missouri
New Hampshire
North Carolina
North Carolina State
Ohio St
Penn State
Pitt
Purdue
Rutgers
South Carolina
SUNY Binghamton
SUNY Buffalo
SUNY Geneseo
Texas A&M
Vermont
Virginia
Virginia Tech
Washington
William and Mary

University of Texas Chancellor Opposes Top 10 Percent Admission Rule

As a former Navy Seal and admiral in command of all U.S. Special Operations forces, UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven spent three decades serving and leading the most elite military forces in the world. He has made it clear that he now wants the state flagship to join the best of the best among the nation’s public universities.

But after seeing the system flagship turn away thousands of the state’s elite students because they did not make the top 10 percent (actually 7 percent at UT Austin this year) in the graduating classes of the state’s most competitive high schools, the chancellor sees the automatic admission rule as a major obstacle to keeping the brightest students in Texas–and at UT Austin.

“Candidly, right now what is holding us back is the 10 percent rule,” McRaven told state higher ed leaders recently.

The motives of the Top 10 proponents are certainly worthy–to increase the enrollment of high-achieving minority students at UT Austin. But what makes the rule (sort of) work is that it is predicated on the fact that many of the state’s high schools remain almost entirely segregated. Sometimes this is because an entire region is heavily Latino (the Rio Grande Valley); but elsewhere the segregation in urban centers is based on race and income.

Many of these high schools are among the least competitive in the state. Graduating in the top 7 percent of a high school that offers no AP or honors sections and that has low mean test scores is far different from reaching the top 7 percent of a graduating class of 800 students that has 70 National Merit Scholars.

What can happen to suburban students at very competitive schools is that an unweighted high school GPA of 3.9 (high school rank top 11 percent) and an SAT score of 1440 might not make the cut at UT Austin. Three-fourths of the school’s admits are from the top 7 percent pool; the other 25 percent of admits face a pool that is as competitive as many of the nation’s most selective private colleges.

And, McRaven would say, too many of these students are going out of state, where it costs them more and where they might remain rather than return to Texas. Moreover, the chancellor believes the rule is part of the reason that UT Austin, despite having a stellar faculty, is not rated as highly as it should be among the nation’s public universities.

“Candidly, I think we need to take a hard look at some of the ways that we address higher education, particularly at our flagship program. Your flagship, your number one university in the state of Texas is ranked 52nd on the U.S. News & World Report. To me that’s unacceptable. A lot of things drive that. The 10 percent rule drives that,” he told higher ed leaders.

While he did not specify exactly how the rule contributes to lower rankings, the graduation rate metric used by U.S. News might be lower for UT Austin in part because of the relatively lower standards in many poor and mostly segregated high schools. (It is possible that the chancellor also sees the large size of UT Austin as another issue.)

If the chancellor can find a way to maintain or improve minority enrollment and do away with the Top 10 rule, he might prevail. If the U.S. Supreme Court does not scrap the university’s current holistic admissions policy for students outside the top 7 percent, he might have a better chance; otherwise, his task will be as difficult as many he faced as a military leader.

“[The Top 10 Rule] is a very very sensitive topic,” State Rep. Robert Alonzo told McRaven. “It is a topic that we have discussed at length from all different aspects, and I would hope that we have put it to rest for a while.”

McRaven was undeterred. “I am a new chancellor, so I am going to take that opportunity to re-open that look again,” he said. “Because my charge is to make us the very best, and I think there are some obstacles to doing that.”

Alonzo replied: “Well, I accept the challenge, sir.”

Stay tuned, for this could be a big battle indeed.

Do Elite Colleges Really Offer Better Courses? Probably Yes, in Some Ways

Is it actually worth it, in terms of quality classroom learning, to land a place at an elite college or university? This is a question that many families with highly-talented students ask themselves. If their answer is yes, the result is likely to be a concerted, frenzied effort to mold the students in a way that gives them at least a modest chance of admission to such schools. (Of course, for better or worse, the question is often framed as “Is it worth it, in terms of career success, to land a place…”).

Regarding the differences in the quality of classes among all levels of institutions, new research provides some insights. The researchers lean toward minimizing the relationship between academic prestige and quality of instruction–but it appears that some of their own research suggests just the opposite.

In an article titled Are Elite College Courses Better?, Doug Lederman, editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, provides an excellent, mostly neutral summary of the recent research that suggests course quality in a relatively broad range of institutions does not vary as much as the prestige of a given school might suggest.

“Researchers at Teachers College of Columbia University and at Yeshiva University… believe they are developing a legitimate way to compare the educational quality of courses across institutions,” Lederman writes, “and their initial analysis, they say, ‘raises questions about the value of higher-prestige institutions in terms of their teaching quality.'”

The researchers suggest that the drive to enhance prestige based on rankings and selectivity have led to “signaling”–branding, perceptions–that are increasingly divorced from the actual quality of classroom instruction. The laudable aim of the researchers is to turn the conversation away from college rankings and the metrics that drive them, and toward measurements of effective, challenging instruction.

Trained faculty observers visited nine colleges and 600 classes. Three of the nine had high prestige; two had minimum prestige; and four had low prestige. The schools were both public and private, with differing research and teaching emphases. We should note that there was no list of which schools were in each category, so we do not know exactly how the researchers defined “elite.” It appears likely, however, that many leading public research universities would be considered elite.

“Teaching quality was defined as instruction that displayed the instructor’s subject matter knowledge, drew out students’ prior knowledge and prodded students to wrestle with new ideas, while academic rigor was judged on the ‘cognitive complexity’ and the ‘level of standards and expectations’ of the course work,” Lederman writes.

“But they found that on only one of the five measures, cognitive complexity of the course work, did the elite colleges in the study outperform the non-elite institutions.”

First, we note that highly-qualified honors students at almost all colleges, including many less prestigious public universities, are far more likely to encounter more “cognitive complexity” in their honors courses. Whether this results from having more depth or breadth in actual assignments, from taking harder courses early on, or from engaging in more challenging interactions with similarly smart students and the best faculty, the learning experience in honors embraces complexity.

We also have to agree with one of the longest and most thoughtful comments posted on Lederman’s article, by one “catorenasci”:

“Well, is [more cognitive complexity] a surprise to anyone? After all…on average the students at elite colleges and universities (private or public) have demonstrated higher cognitive ability than the students at less prestigious colleges and universities. Which means that the faculty can teach at a level of greater cognitive complexity without losing (many) students.”

The full comment from “catorenasci” also seems to be on the mark when it comes to improved instruction in all other measured areas on the part of colleges with less prestige, regardless of honors affiliation.

“As for the level of ‘teaching quality’ based on faculty knowledge, given the job market today, it should hardly be surprising that it has equaled out since there are many top quality candidates for even less prestigious positions and overall, I would suspect that the ‘quality’ of the PhD’s of faculty at less elite schools is much closer to that of elite schools than it was during the ’50s and ’60s when higher education was expanding rapidly and jobs were plentiful.

“The transformational aspect should not be surprising either: assuming faculty are competent and dedicated, with less able students they will work harder to draw out what they know and build on it. And, it will be more likely that students will experience significant growth as the faculty do this.”

New Coalition for Access and Affordability: A Revolution in Admissions?

The Coalition for Access and Affordability is a new group of 80-plus colleges and universities, all with six-year grad rates of 70 percent and higher, and all apparently committed to transforming the admissions process at high-profile institutions. Among the members are all Ivy League schools, top liberal arts colleges, and many leading public universities. So far, the UC System and the UT System are not listed as members.

Note: A link showing coalition members is at the end of this post.

What exactly all of this means for the Common App is uncertain. For now, it appears that coalition members will use it.

“What the emergence of a new rival might mean for the Common Application could become an intriguing storyline over the next few years,” the Chronicle of Higher Ed reports. The standardized admissions form used by more than 600 colleges worldwide has long dominated the college-admissions realm.

“But it’s raising the college-access flag, too. Recently, the organization bolstered the college-planning resources for students on its website, including information specifically for middle-school students and ninth graders. ‘It’s planning to roll out ‘virtual counselor’ materials, including articles and videos that answer specific questions about the application process,” said Aba G. Blankson, director of communications for the Common Application.”

Questions remain about the mission and intentions of the coalition. One dean of admissions told the Chronicle of Higher Ed that “I’m not convinced about the true intentions of the coalition. The schools participating in this effort should not mask their intentions on the guise of ‘access.’ It’s a deceiving marketing ploy… ”

As usual, Nancy Griesemer, writing for the Washington Examiner, has written an excellent post on the hot topic.

“In a nutshell,” she writes, “the Coalition is developing a free platform of online college planning and application tools. The tools will include a digital portfolio, a collaboration platform, and an application portal.

“High school students will be encouraged to add to their online portfolios beginning in the ninth grade examples of their best work, short essays, descriptions of extracurricular activities, videos, etc. Students could opt to share or not share all or part of their portfolios with college admissions or counseling staff and ‘community mentors.'” [Emphasis added.]

The planning site and portfolio portals are supposed to be open to high school students in January 2016, and the supposition is that coalition members will be using the data then.

“Billed as a system designed to have students think more deeply about what they are learning or accomplishing in high school by the development of online portfolios, the new endeavor will actually create efficient ways for college admissions officers to access more detailed information about prospective applicants earlier in the game,” Griesemer writes.

“The coalition application is an interesting concept, but begs the question of who will benefit more from the information-sharing plan—high school students or colleges. And while the plan is promoted as helping students—particularly disadvantaged students—to present themselves to colleges in a more robust manner, it seems likely that students able to afford early college coaching may actually benefit quite a bit from being able to post their accomplishments on a platform viewed and commented on by admissions staff.” [Emphasis added.]

Here is a link showing coalition members as of this date.

Expert on International Higher Ed: “Un-Excellence” Initiatives Aimed at Public Universities Harm U.S. Standing in the World

Editor’s note: This post updated on October 1, 2016, after release of Times Higher Ed Rankings for 2016.

It is likely that Philip G. Altbach, a research professor and the founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, has the sharpest eye of anyone in America when it comes to seeing how well U.S. universities compare with rapidly improving institutions throughout the world. What he sees is not good.

U.S. public universities are losing ground to foreign institutions, most notably in Europe and Scandinavia.

(Below the following text are three tables. The first compares the Times Higher Ed world rankings of U.S. universities and those throughout the world for the years 2011 and 2016. The second shows the decline in rankings for U.S. public universities for the same  years. The third and final table shows the rise in rankings for U.S. private universities.

Altbach cites the work of colleague Jamil Salmi, who found that there are at least 36 “excellence initiatives” around the world “that have pumped billions of dollars into the top universities in these countries — with resulting improvements in quality, research productivity, and emerging improvements in the rankings of these universities. Even in cash-strapped Russia, the ‘5-100’ initiative is providing $70 million into each of 15 selected universities to help them improve and compete globally. [Emphasis added.]

“At the same time, American higher education is significantly damaging its top universities through continuous budget cuts by state governments. One might call this an American “unExcellence initiative” as the world’s leading higher education systematically damages its top research universities. Current developments are bad enough in a national context, but in a globalized world, policies in one country will inevitably have implications elsewhere. Thus, American disinvestment, coming at the same time as significant investment elsewhere, will magnify the decline of a great higher education system.”

One reason: All the bad publicity about cuts in funding, along with high-profile political grandstanding that has received far too much attention throughout the world academic community. For example, UT Austin endured years of highly publicized attacks by former Governor Perry during his second term, and UW Madison has been hurt by similar actions on the part of Governor Scott Walker.

Unless state legislatures move toward excellence and restore pre-Great Recession funding levels, there will be “a revolution in global higher education and create space for others at the top of the rankings. It would also be extraordinarily damaging for American higher education and for America’s competitiveness in the world.”

The average ranking for the 23 U.S. publics among the top 100 in the world in 2011 was 39th, while in 2016 it was 49th–and only 15 publics were among the top 100. Meanwhile, leading U.S. private universities have seen both their average reputation rankings and overall rankings rise since 2011.

To illustrate Professor Altbach’s point, we have generated the tables below.

This table compares the Times Higher Ed world  rankings of U.S. universities and those throughout the world for the years 2011 and 2016.

Top 100 Overall2011Public2016PublicGain/Loss
U.S.53233915-14
U.K./Ireland16160
Europe/Scand122513
Asia109-1
Australia561
Canada440

The following table shows the decline in rankings for U.S. public universities for the years 2011 and 2016. UC Davis is the only school to rise, while most dropped significantly.

 RepRankingRepRanking
Times Higher Ed Rankings2011201120162016
UC Berkeley48613
UCLA12111316
Michigan13151921
Illinois21333036
Wisconsin25433850
Washington26233332
UC San Diego30324139
UT Austin31294646
UC Davis38544444
Georgia Tech39274941
UC Santa Barbara55296539
North Carolina41306563
Minnesota43527565
Purdue 4710675113
Ohio State55667590
Pitt55647579
Averages33394749

This last table shows the rise in rankings for leading U.S. private universities for the years 2011 and 2016.

 RepRankingRepRanking
Times Higher Ed Rankings2011201120162016
Harvard1116
MIT2345
Stanford5453
Princeton7577
Yale910811
Caltech10291
Johns Hopkins14131812
Chicago15121110
Cornell16142018
Penn22192317
Columbia23181015
Carnegie Mellon28202822
Duke36243420
Northwestern40254725
NYU55602030
Averages19151614

U.S. News Top 20 Publics 2009-2016: Resources, Grad Rates, Class Size

The annual U.S. News Best Colleges rankings are extremely useful and interesting, but not exactly because of the rankings themselves.

The rankings do not so much answer questions as raise them. Why did a college or university with a strong academic reputation and grad rates not do better? Why did another college with a weak academic reputation and so-so grad rates do so well? How much does class size matter?

Of course the rankings also provide great and useful stats about the questions raised above and about the test score ranges and high school GPA’s of enrolled students.

But when it comes to the rankings, what should matter most are grad and retention rates, class sizes, academic reputation, and, most problematically, the financial resources of colleges. The last should not be counted because it is the “input” factor for the other things measured as “outputs” and therefore only magnifies the impact of money.

The table below shows how the impact of “financial resources” can have such an impact on rankings. Only the College of William and Mary seems invulnerable to the typically damaging impact of low financial resources. The main reason is high grad rates, the 4th highest percentage (among top publics) of classes with 20 or fewer students, and the lowest percentage of classes with 50 or more students.  Of course, William and Mary is, by far, the smallest of the leading publics.

The University of Washington has the most puzzling combination: a financial resources ranking significantly higher than the ranking of the school. For a while now, the numbers for UW have looked odd to us, although the school itself is at least on a par with Wisconsin, Illinois, and UT Austin.

UT Austin is a more typical case. The university is penalized not only for having relatively low financial resources (per student) but also because the resulting outputs (especially class sizes) are well below the mean. That UT Austin is too large to be ranked in proportion to its academic reputation may be the fault of the powers that be in Texas; but that it is penalized as well because of the low score in financial resources is, in effect, a double whammy.

The other side of the coin, so to speak, is that magnifying the wealth metric is a built-in boost to many private universities. Most public universities, however, do relatively well only in spite of the magnification of the wealth factor.

Because of the width of the table, readers will need to scroll horizontally to see the last one or two columns. If you want to track a single school while scrolling, just select the entire row and then scroll.

NationalYRYRAvgChg 09GradClassClassPeerGr/Ret$$$
University20092016Rankto 16Rate%<20%>50RatingRankRank
Berkeley212020.7519159154.72339
UCLA25232429150.9224.22320
Virginia232624.125-39455154.21167
Michigan262928.125-39148.1184.42341
N. Carolina303029.62509039.21542832
Wm Mary323432.625-29047.593.728113
Ga Tech353635.625-18238.6254.14944
UCSD353936.875-48638.1363.83621
UC Davis444139.87538734.8273.84732
UCSB443740.7578749.4183.55467
Wisconsin354141.375-68545.8204.14062
Illinois404142.625-18441.7203.94056
UC Irvine443943.7558758.3203.63651
Washington 415245.5-118435.1223.85432
Penn State474745.508638.4153.63856
UT Austin475248.375-58136.52545878
Florida494750.62528849.1163.63445
Ohio St565254.2548329.6223.74971
Maryland535757-48645.4163.64083
Georgia 586160-38538.8123.440120
Mean Avg39.2540.240.06875-0.9586.943.96519.43.88537.5556.5

The National Merit Journey Part Two: The Parent’s Role

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two detailed articles that describe the complex and often confusing process of becoming a National Merit Scholar. You can read the first segment here.

Author Jane Mueller Fly is an attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Houston-Downtown Campus. Here is a sentence from part two:

“I know you don’t like to be annoying, but get over it. Remember, a full ride to college hangs in the balance.” The full article, below, tells you why.

In Part One, I discussed the steps in the National Merit Scholarship competition. Of course, it is the student who must ace the PSAT and have the impressive high school resume required to progress all the way to National Merit Scholar. But parents have a role to play as well, ensuring that their students have the best possible chance to grab the golden National Merit ring.

As parents, we walk a fine line between appropriately guiding our children, and stunting their growth with the wind from our helicopter blades. When do you step back and let them learn from their failures? When do you step in to help?

The National Merit Scholarship competition is one place where parent involvement may be vital to the student’s success. If the thought of too much involvement makes you cringe, however, consider this: should your student become a National Merit Finalist, he or she will be able to choose from a long list of colleges and universities offering generous scholarships, including many 4-year full rides. Let the hovering begin.

Many critics of the National Merit Scholarship competition believe it is based entirely on the PSAT, a short test administered by College Board and taken during the junior year of high school. The truth, however, is that students who ultimately progress to National Merit Scholar have cleared many more hurdles than just a high PSAT score. For example, the student must have stellar grades throughout high school. One D, or a couple of Cs, is enough to eliminate students from the competition. If your student is already a senior, then this advice comes a bit too late. But if you have younger students, or an older student with early-onset senioritis, you now have one more reason to encourage your student to keep up the grades.

As junior year approaches, many students begin preparing for the PSAT and other standardized tests. Prep courses, in person or online, may improve your student’s scores, but there is no reason to shell out the big bucks. Free online help is available from sources such as Khan Academy, and PSAT/SAT study guides are another inexpensive alternative. The parent’s role is to encourage your student to study for the PSAT. In particular, be sure they complete at least a couple of timed PSATs for practice. It will help them with pacing during the one that counts.

Of course, once test day is over, you and your student will be eager to see the scores. College Board sends PSAT scores to principals in December, but many schools wait until after winter break to distribute the scores and the code needed by students to view test results online. Keep track of the dates. When PSAT scores are due, don’t be shy about asking the school when scores will be distributed. Better yet, have your student ask.

Once you’ve seen the score, you may wonder whether your student is still in the running for National Merit Scholar. Many online forums have state-by-state lists showing the PSAT cutoff scores required in past years, so while you won’t know for certain for many months whether your student’s PSAT score will qualify him or her for Semifinalist, you can at least get some indication of where your student stands.

Of course every student should now be gearing up for the SAT and ACT. The PSAT score should give you an idea of areas requiring more focus. Your math genius may need to hone her Critical Reading skills. Your future writer may need to review the quadratic formula. For kids whose PSAT scores indicate they may qualify as National Merit Semifinalists, the SAT takes on new meaning. Be sure your student signs up and takes the SAT junior year, preferably while the PSAT material is still fresh. The goal for the National Merit competition is to reach at least a 1960 on the SAT, as this has historically been the score deemed to “confirm” the student’s PSAT score. (See Part One of this article for the method of calculating the SAT score for purposes of the National Merit Scholarship competition).

By taking the SAT during junior year, your student will have ample opportunities to retake the test if necessary to earn of score of 1960. Don’t forget that College Board must send the SAT score to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. This is a great use of one of your free SAT score reports. If it turns out that the SAT score does not meet or exceed 1960, no harm done. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation will accept the highest score, so your student can retake the SAT and submit the new scores.

This is a good time to stress three important points. First, the PSAT and SAT are products of College Board. The National Merit program, however, is run by a private non-profit called the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, or NMSC. College Board and NMSC are two different entities. Second, as many frustrated parents have learned, most communication related to the PSAT and the National Merit Scholarship competition is sent to students via their high school principals. Third, many school administrators are unaware that the correspondence they receive has not also been sent to the student. One parent was told flat out by the principal that students know their PSAT scores well before the school is notified. While this would certainly make sense, it just is not true.

Another parent was advised by a guidance counselor that NMSC mails Semifinalist letters to students’ home addresses. Again, not true, unless your student is home-schooled, in which case the school and home address are the same. But it is completely understandable that the principal and guidance counselor would believe the information had already been sent to you. And while, for many parents and students, news from NMSC is of highest priority, your high school administrators must also deal with matters such as new education legislation and a sophomore smoking weed in the parking lot. So cut them some slack.

Sometime in April, principals will be notified which, if any, of their students have scored in the top 50,000 nationwide. The principal is asked to verify data submitted by the student that confirms the student’s eligibility for the competition. As usual, this notification is not sent to parents or students, and very often the school does not pass the information on to parents, so don’t be surprised if you are never notified that your student is on the list. By now you should already know your student’s PSAT score and the online forums will be buzzing with news of the nationwide score needed to place in the top 50,000. If you think your student’s name should be on the list, but you cannot relax without knowing for sure, by all means contact the school or, better yet, have your student do so.

While parents and students are eager for this news, the more significant notification from NMSC arrives in September and, as usual, is sent to the principal. This notification provides a letter for each student who has qualified, by virtue of the PSAT score, as one of 16,000 Semifinalists. The letter includes the login information needed so that the student may begin the online application for Finalist. The letter also, unfortunately, advises the principal that the information is not to be made public until a later date. While the letter does in fact permit the principal to notify parents and students of Semifinalist standing, the policy at many schools is to not release the information to anyone, not even to students and parents, until the moratorium on publicity is lifted. If your student is not one of the lucky ones called immediately to the principal’s office for the good news, then keep an eye on the online forums where a state-by-state cutoff list will begin to materialize as qualifying students post their scores.

Eventually, though, your student must gain access to the letter sent to the principal. Parents, don’t be timid. By now you’ve been somewhat assured, by complete strangers who posted state cutoff scores online, that your student has qualified as a Semifinalist. Have your student talk to his guidance counselor, and if that doesn’t work, send an email or place a call yourself. Remember, the good people at the school probably believe that NMSC sent you an identical letter. And they have that stoned sophomore to deal with. They won’t mind a friendly email from you:

“Dear Ms. Jones, We are eagerly awaiting news as to whether our son has qualified as a National Merit Semifinalist, and I just learned that notification letters have been sent to the high schools. I know you’re busy, but could you please let me know if my son is a Semifinalist? If so, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation says he has to have the login information from the letter in order to complete an online application, so would you please also give him a copy of the letter?“

There. That was easy.

So now you have the letter containing the secret code, and your student can log in to the NMSC website to begin the application. Be sure your student takes the application, including the essay, seriously. An anecdote has circled for years about a permanent Semifinalist (a student who did not progress to Finalist) whose essay lambasted the National Merit program. This is not a time for your child to become an anecdote. The essay matters. Once complete, be sure your student’s part of the application, and confirming SAT score, are submitted on time.

The other half of the application is to be completed by someone at the high school, and while it seems this is out of your control, it behooves you to stay on top of the process. It is also in the best interest of the school for your student, and all the school’s Semifinalists, to advance in the competition.

This part of the application requires that the principal “endorse” the student–a no brainer unless your kid was once that stoned sophomore or had other behavioral transgressions. The school must also list each course your student completed and grades (semester or quarter grades, depending upon which grades are used in your school’s GPA calculations). If your student has even one D or one or two Cs during high school, that may be enough to disqualify him or her from the competition. Be sure the guidance counselor realizes this and ask that it be addressed in the application. An explanation may make the difference. For example, the guidance counselor can address facts such as if the grade was in 9th grade and the student has matured since then, the student had a major illness that semester, etc. The school must also evaluate the student’s academic achievement, extracurricular accomplishments and personal character and qualities, along with rigor of courses. If your school has more than one Semifinalist, all can be ranked at the highest level, so be sure your guidance counselor understands this.

Finally, the guidance counselor must submit a recommendation for the student. Perhaps your student is well known in the counselor’s office. But for many students, particularly in large schools, the guidance counselor has never had an opportunity to really get to know them. Writing a recommendation letter may be a challenge. So help your student put together a short resume listing things he or she may wish to have included in the recommendation letter: favorite courses, extracurricular activities, leadership positions, awards, community service commitments, employment, etc. Then have your student deliver the resume in person (preferably) or by email to the guidance counselor (or whomever is going to write the recommendation letter) with a short note.

“Dear Ms. Jones, Thank you for writing the National Merit recommendation letter for me. Here is a short resume I put together for you, just in case you need details about my activities in high school.”

If the guidance counselor needs the information, it will be readily available.

Parents are always worried that a deadline will be missed. In this regard, let me assure you of two things. First, you have a phone. Shortly before the deadline, pick up the phone and call NMSC. They will confirm whether the school has submitted the online application, and whether the SAT score requirement has been met. If the application has not yet been submitted, you have time to send a friendly reminder to the school. Then check back with NMSC. Then remind the school again. Lather, rinse, repeat. I know you don’t like to be annoying, but get over it. Remember, a full ride to college hangs in the balance. Your school administrators would prefer a friendly reminder as the deadline approaches rather than an irate phone call after the deadline has passed. Second, the NMSC makes great efforts to ensure that no student falls through the cracks, particularly over something out of the student’s control. Rest assured that even if the school fails to submit the application on time, or the SAT score is not received, or any number of other items is missing, a reminder will be sent.

Finally, there is an appeal process through NMSC available for students who do not progress to Finalist. But, as 15 out of 16 Semifinalists do progress to Finalist, I certainly hope you won’t need to appeal.

In summary, your student is busy being a senior, and could easily miss an important deadline. And your school’s administrators are busy dealing with more issues than you can imagine. So while you may not wish to be a helicopter parent, this is one time when you need to hover just a bit.

The UC Universities and U.S. News

The U.S. News rankings for 2016 are  something of a tribute to major University of California universities. For 2016, six UC institutions are among the top 41 national universities, though none is higher than 20th (Berkeley). But if one looks closely at the UC scores in major output categories and in the financial resources category, there are some interesting differences. Academic reputation, though not a “pure” output category, is also discussed below.

As we have noted several times on this site, by assigning weight for the amount of financial resources and for the outputs related to those resources (class size, ratios of students to faculty), the U.S. News rankings magnify wealth. The outputs alone are what should be included.

  • UC Berkeley and UCLA, ranked 20th and 23rd  overall, are strong across the board. At both schools the majority of class sections have 20 students or fewer. Both have strong academic reputations along with high grad and retention rates. What most people might not guess is that UCLA is ranked 20th among all national universities in financial resources, and Berkeley 39th.
  • UC San Diego and UC Davis, ranked 39th and 41st overall in 2016, score well below average among top 20 public universities in the class size metrics. But along with solid grad/retention rates they also rank 21st and 32nd in financial resources, providing them with a boost more typical of private universities. UC San Diego and UC Davis both score 3.8 in the rep metric.
  • UC Irvine, ranked 39th, is well-balanced overall except that its academic reputation is a relatively modest 3.6 out of 5. This compares to UC Berkeley’s 4.7 and UCLA’s 4.2.
  • UC Santa Barbara, meanwhile, has the second lowest academic rep score among the top 20 public schools, 3.5., and ranks only 67th in financial resources. But UCSB gets it done by having more smaller classes and strong grad/retention rates.

Except for some slight dropoffs in scores for academic reputation and the larger classes at Davis and San Diego, the UC campuses prosper in the rankings because they don’t have shortcomings in more than one or two metrics. And only one–UCSB–ranks worse than 60th in the questionable category of financial resources.

Two other factors that help the UC campuses in the rankings is that first-year entrants are highly qualified, both in test scores and class standing. Applicants who are not accepted as freshmen often attend community colleges and Cal State universities, and when they transfer with high GPA’s, they have a proven record that contributes to the high average grad rates at the six UC’s discussed above: 88%.

The UC approach is preferable by far to the automatic admission rules at the University of Texas at Austin, at least from the standpoint of rankings and graduation rates. The legislatively-imposed “top 10% rule” at UT (actually top 8% in 2016) leads to the admission of students whose class standing at a poor high school carries the same weight as the class standing at the most rigorous high schools.

If these students attended less demanding state universities for their first year or two and did extremely well (the California model), their chances of succeeding would likely improve. Many would not be admitted at all as freshmen to a major UC campus regardless of high school class rank because of low test scores or insufficiently demanding high school classes.

Even if UT Austin maintained its (too large) enrollment levels demanded by the legislature, having better qualified freshmen and transfers would kick up the graduation rate (now 81%). The academic reputation of UT (4.0) and, indeed the real strength of its academic departments, should place the university in the top five or six among public research institutions.

The problem in Austin is not UT; the problem is the state legislature a few blocks away.

Note: UT Austin has outstanding honors programs that concentrate the academic excellence at the university and feature much smaller classes: Plan II, Liberal Arts Honors, Business Honors, Engineering Honors, and multiple Natural Science honors programs.

Honors News is a regular (not always daily) update, in brief, of recent news from honors colleges/programs and from the world of higher ed. Occasionally, a bit of opinion enters the discussion. These brief posts are by John Willingham, unless otherwise noted. In fairness to UT Austin, of which I am an alum, the multiple honors programs there are outstanding and offset the issues with class size and graduation rates by concentrating the excellence of the university.

 

 

 

Honors Education: An Antidote to the “Neoliberal,” Vocational Trends in Higher Ed

Editor’s Note: Following the introduction, please see excerpts from a recent post by Joel Hunter, Ph.D.

In his latest post, Honors Education: A Parallel College?, Joel Hunter, Ph.D., continues his response to William Deresiewicz, author of a much read essay at The New Republic and now another at Harper’s.

Deresiewicz believes that higher education has entered “the age of neoliberalism.  Call it Reaganism or Thatcherism, economism or market fundamentalism, neoliberalism is an ideology that reduces all values to money values. The worth of a thing is the price of the thing. The worth of a person is the wealth of the person. Neoliberalism tells you that you are valuable exclusively in terms of your activity in the marketplace — in Wordsworth’s phrase, your getting and spending.”

Citing New York Times columnist David Brooks, Deresiewicz notes that higher education used to have, or should have, “three potential purposes: the commercial (preparing to start a career), the cognitive (learning stuff, or better, learning how to think), and the moral (the purpose that is so mysterious to Pinker and his ilk). ‘Moral,’ here, does not mean learning right from wrong. It means developing the ability to make autonomous choices — to determine your own beliefs, independent of parents, peers, and society. To live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.”

Now, he argues, “Only the commercial purpose now survives as a recognized value. Even the cognitive purpose, which one would think should be the center of a college education, is tolerated only insofar as it contributes to the commercial.” The result, according to Deresiewicz, is that universities ostensibly dedicated to the development of deep critical thinking skills are increasingly functioning as “parallel colleges,” where the true focus is on internships, institutes, entrepreneurship, and vocational disciplines.

From “Honors Education: A Parallel College?”, by Joel Hunter, Ph.D.

Among the disputed points, Dereciewicz argues that the development of a “parallel curriculum” and “parallel college” is symptomatic of higher education’s abandoning its traditional mission to develop in its students “the ability to think and live” for both personal and public enrichment, and instead reorganizing the function of education around neoliberal aims and purposes. I described in my earlier post why I think this analysis is flawed. In this addendum, I will focus on one example of why we should be hopeful rather than alarmed about some of these “parallel” initiatives: the growth in numbers of and accessibility to public Honors programs and colleges.

Honors programs arose in the 1920s and 30s as “Great Books” programs in private colleges. These programs were developed by a group of academics who sought to (re)introduce the liberal arts tradition as the center of American higher education, thus broadening what they viewed as a too-narrow specialization that had emerged in response to the growing economy and culture of industrial scale manufacturing in the late nineteenth century. The growth of the early Honors programs stalled during World War II, the immediate post-war period, and during the Korean War. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union spurred unprecedented federal investment in higher education and reinvigorated the growth of Honors programs.

Honors colleges are an even more recent phenomenon. According to the National Collegiate Honors Council NCHC), a survey of their member institutions showed that of those responding, 60 percent of Honors colleges had been established since 1994. And 80 percent of those had evolved from an earlier Honors program. As of May 2015, there were nearly 200 Honors programs and colleges in the U.S. (NCHC guide). The period of this historical development coincides with the very period Deresiewicz claims that neoliberal values appear triumphant. If he were right that higher education has been debased to a mere instrumental good since the 1960s, the rise and growth of these humanistic, interdisciplinary, “Great Ideas” and “Great Books” programs should not have occurred over that same period. Honors programs and colleges express their mission in the very terms that Deresiewicz thinks has all but disappeared in the age of Reagan, Walker, “Third Way” DLC Democrats, and Obama: learning how to think critically and independently, developing an individual’s personal and intellectual welfare, and creating self-governing citizens with a sense of social responsibility, capable of pursuing the common good and sustaining a democratic society.

Thriving Honors education at public institutions all over the country – Macaulay at City University of New York, Western Kentucky University, the University of Alabama, the University of Florida, Michigan State University, the University of Cincinnati, UCLA, and the University of Arizona – constitutes a substantial counterexample to Deresiewicz’s dire view of the current and future states of liberal arts education.

[Quoting Ted Humphrey, founding Dean, ASU Barrett Honors College]: “For a number of complex reasons, I came to think of it in terms of the habits of mind we were engendering by emphasizing the importance of the Great Books tradition. This perspective makes the reason for focusing on the Great Books the development of specific intellectual dispositions, most importantly, the abilities to read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience analytically and disinterestedly. Further, the Great Books are models of good and effective writing. Although the Great Books provide invaluable insight into human nature and values, into the reasons for and goals of social existence, they are yet more valuable as examples of those habits of mind that give rise to humanity’s self-understanding and attempts to progress to a more fulfilled state. Thus, it seems to me, honors education is better served by taking the Great Books as paradigms of certain habits of mind than as the particular repositories of human wisdom that all must master.”

If a public institution of higher education is committed to serving highly qualified students able to undertake rigorous course work, then the challenge becomes organizing the college under an inclusive conception of honors education.

This task consists of three parts: first, to attract and bring together identifiable cohorts of able and ambitious students who commit themselves to the project of becoming educated members of a democratic society; second, to help them understand that they are pursuing an education for life, citizenship, and career, in that order; and third, to create a set of curricular and co-curricular opportunities that can provide such an education, that is, to organize the resources of the university for those students’ benefit. In sum, the honors dean’s job is to provide the campus with cohorts of superb students and to make sure the campus opens its resources to them.

Given that this precise effort has been duplicated in dozens and now hundreds of public colleges and universities, a handful of which I listed above, we may well ask how Deresiewicz overlooked the phenomenon of Honors education in his article. For it seems to embody the very values he applauds as a “real” education, a vanguard against neoliberal values and ideology. Perhaps Honors education is insufficiently committed to inclusiveness or egalitarian values insofar as it is confined to a particular population in the university, and for whom the university establishes a “parallel college.” Is Honors education elitist?

The answer is, “Could be.” Honors programs and colleges are, by their very nature, selective. They exist in part to enable the academically bright young adults to flourish in a curriculum that often includes Socratic seminars, enrichment opportunities in their disciplinary courses, and access to independent study and projects with faculty eager to engage in “the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds.” My experience has been that many Honors students “will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way” and “care deeply about thinking and learning,” just like their most dedicated faculty.

Does the selective admissions process for Honors programs and colleges institutionalize systemic elitism? Do such programs create an academic upper class, diverting resources and opportunities away from the lower tier underclass, a 99% left outside the gates of the Honors community? This is a serious concern, especially for public institutions of higher education, who are commissioned to serve all of the citizens of a state and contribute to the commonweal. Can the danger of elitism and exclusivity be avoided or overcome? Let’s consider this objection.

An elite enjoys privileges difficult or impossible to obtain by the general population. Having different access to advantages and resources than the masses, elites live and work on an uneven playing field. At a public college or university, if funding and resources are unequally transferred to special cohorts or schools, that appears to be fundamentally at odds with the mission of public institution that exists to serve the public good rather than the private good of particular individuals. The benefits of the education underwritten by the citizens of a state are not (or should not be) prioritized by the good that is served to individuals, but to the common good. Since Honors education is organized in such a way as to benefit a small percentage of the student population, it seems that such programs are illegitimate and inconsistent with public supported higher education.

This objection demands an answer. Is it legitimate to divert revenue obtained from one large group of students to benefit a smaller group of students? Yes, sometimes this disproportionate allocation is a legitimate response to serve the overall public good. Funding diversions are recognized and routinely practiced for students with documented disabilities and students for whom English is not their first language. Disability resource centers and intensive English language programs exist to make a college education attainable for all citizens, including those with special needs. Additional services, such as tutoring and accommodations for attending and participating in amateur sports, are provided for athletes. If institutions of public education are obligated to support each individual’s need to fully realize their potential, then differential support from the public treasury is necessary. Are Honors students one of those populations with special needs? Yes, I believe so, and for two reasons.

Honors students are comparable to athletes. Competitive amateur sports in college have been recognized for over one hundred years as a means for enabling able and ambitious students to pursue their physical development, which, unless we take a disembodied view of the student, is a legitimate component of their full potential. Students admitted into Honors programs are the academic athletes of the college or university. If sport athletes are a population of students who require support to meet their special needs, then Honors students are as well. It is clearly a legitimate special allocation of resources to develop “appropriately conceived and rigorous course work for able and ambitious students.” If the analogy with athletes holds, then able and ambitious students are one of the university’s diverse, special needs populations.

The second reason Honors students are a group with special needs in a public institution of higher education is related to the first. The reason institutions of public education are obligated by charter or institutional values to support each individual’s need to fully realize their potential is bound up with the point of education itself. Education refines the individual, nurtures creativity, and contributes to the overall commonweal of the state by the general effect of conviviality encouraged within the institution’s society. By these means public education equips students to contribute more fully and richly to the economic and cultural welfare of civil society. If Honors students are not provided with an appropriate level of course work and academic challenge, the public would be impeding its own economic and cultural development by handicapping some of its brightest citizens from achieving their full potential. Whatever private benefits accrue to students provided with accommodations, and the student with a documented disability, the athlete, and the Honors student all surely do, states have long recognized that legitimate justification for reallocating resources to meet these students’ special needs is the important contribution they make to the public good.

Contrary to Deresiewicz’s claim, public Honors education is not a parallel curriculum developed by students for careerist aims or institutions for neoliberal aims. The values underpinning Honors programs are not “encased in neoliberal assumptions,” based on meritocracy, or “generating a caste system.” On the contrary, my own experience, and the experience of thousands of faculty members who teach Honors students speak to the very principle that Deresiewicz thinks has all but disappeared: the “counterbalancing institutions” that advance a set of values in deep tension with, and at important points in opposition to, neoliberalism. He asks “What is to be done?” For starters:

1. Develop and encourage Honors education at all public colleges and universities, including community colleges.
2. Establish broad-based faculty support for Honors education, particularly in institutions with strong professional and technical colleges.
3. Ensure equal access to Honors education by not levying fees or required student expenses over and above those already assessed by the broader institution.

Deresiewicz says that the fundamental problem with efforts to push back against neoliberal education “is that we no longer believe in public solutions.” He says “[w]e only believe in market solutions, or at least private-sector solutions.” I do not know who this “we” is, because when I consider the growing movement of public Honors education, I see a strong commitment to a public solution. It may not solve the problems in private higher education, but the residential Honors college developed in public universities has been exported and adapted to some of the most prestigious of private institutions as well. “Real” education, contrary to Deresiesicz’s false alarm, is readily available to all students in this country, in spite of social and political forces that may wish to suppress it.