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

Black Hills State University: An Honors Program with International Opportunities

Editor’s Note: The following post is one in a series written by honors professionals across the country.

By Dr. Courtney Huse Wika, assistant professor of English and director of the Black Hills State University Honors Program

The gold rush and the old west aren’t the only gems of the historic Black Hills of South Dakota. Students looking for an Honors Program with unique academic engagement, opportunities for international travel, and a powerful social support network, should take a look at Black Hills State University.

The University Honors Program at Black Hills State University is designed to provide the University’s top students with the support and individualized instruction they need to pursue their highest academic and professional goals. Located in the scenic Black Hills of Spearfish and Rapid City, S.D., the University Honors Program at BHSU adds to the already tremendous value of a Black Hills State University education.

Here are seven significant advantages of the University Honors Program:

1. Unique Coursework: The goal of the Honors curriculum is to provide students with a well-rounded education and, at the same time, to give them a chance to follow their own academic, professional or creative interests. Depending on the degree program, there are two tracks for the University Honors Program: Bachelor’s and Associate. Faculty create one-of-a-kind courses that promote academic excellence and the free exchange of ideas, academic scholarship and research, and experiential learning.

2. Faculty Mentors: From their first semester on campus, students work closely with professors across campus and specifically in their chosen field(s) of study. Traditionally, Honors classes remain small to promote individualized instruction and foster the student-faculty mentor relationship.

3. Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship: Each Honors course promotes academic engagement and research, and Honors students are a majority presence at The Black Hills Research Symposium and presenters for BHSU at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR), the annual national research conference. As a final opportunity to direct their own research, creative activity, service project, or study abroad experience, students complete and publicly defend a capstone project under the mentorship of their capstone committee composed of esteemed BHSU faculty. The capstone project often serves as material for application to graduate schools, school districts, and in the professional world.

4. Opportunities for International Travel: The University Honors Program partners with the Office of International Studies and Global Engagement to offer tailored international experiences for interested students, such as study abroad, faculty-led colloquia, teaching abroad, and international service-learning trips. Students who complete the University Honors program with a meaningful international experience have the the distinction of graduating as an International University Scholar.

5. Honors Colloquia: Designed as intensive seminars, these courses are unique to the University Honors Program. They are mid-level courses that assume no prior background in the area but that emphasize scholarly reading, writing, and research. Colloquia topics have included “Molecules that Changed History,” “Harry Potter and the Politics of Power,” “Ethics and Leadership in Popular Science Fiction,” and a service-learning course with a 10-day stay in the Philippines.

6. Home Away from Home: University Honors students enjoy a built-in social and academic community through frequent social events, “stocials” (study socials), community service projects, and Thursday afternoon Geek Speak lectures from esteemed faculty. The program also hosts its own student group, the Honors Club, which organizes campus and community events and activities like blood drives, volunteer afternoons at the no-kill animal shelter, and the BHSU Pantry for students and student families in need. University Honors students also enjoy a private Honors Center in historic Woodburn Hall.

7. University Scholar Transcript Designations: Students who successfully complete the University Honors Program requirements will receive the academic distinction of “University Scholar” on their official academic transcript. This designation indicates to employers and graduate program committees that the applicant’s academic achievement is higher than most graduates.

Students at BHSU are surrounded by picturesque vistas on campus with nearby hiking and biking trails for the perfect study break. Challenging and engaging academics inspire profound research and international experiences which are at the core of the BHSU University Honors Program.

 

 

Honors Testimonials: Virginia Commonwealth Honors College

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of testimonials from students and faculty at leading public university honors colleges and programs.

The following testimonials are from the Virginia Commonwealth University Honors College:

Rishabh Khatri–Each and everyday I feel confident in my growth at the VCU Honors College, that not only offered a window to the future but also an endless hall of open doors, inviting and demanding that I engage with the world in order to enrich my own understanding and become a positive agent of change. The Honors College community, students, and faculty have fostered my personal maturation as a student, a leader, and humanitarian because of this belief. I hope to continue to mature as an individual and eventually spread the positivity and freedom of education I have cherished at VCU over the past four years.

Jamie Shive–Now that I have almost successfully completed my degree, I could not imagine earning it without the Honors College in the picture. The inspiration to excel academically, the ability to distinguish myself and my accomplishments through the Honors College among other students, and the friends and bonds I have made are completely invaluable. When I began my studies at VCU, I never felt myself worthy of such a special opportunity, and I joined simply because I wanted to work harder and learn more. Looking back, I had no idea how important my acceptance would be. I can say with certainty that without the Honors College, I would not have been able to grow into the sophisticated, hard-working academic and individual that I am today.

Janine Matthews–Being a member of the VCU Honors College has transformed me personally and academically. I am in awe of my instructors and my fellow students, especially my peers in the Honors Graduating Class of Spring 2016.  To be surrounded by such intelligence and standards of excellence has pushed me to meet and surpass the benchmarks VCU has established for obtaining my degree.  I have risen to the challenges posed by my professors and peers. For the first time in my life, I achieved an A in an honors-level mathematics class, which is an accomplishment this numbers-phobic art major never dreamed possible.  I am grateful to be included in the amazing group of motivated, supportive scholars and staff of the VCU Honors College. The drive of my fellow students has spurred me on to achieve my own levels of excellence.  I have loved the honors courses. I wouldn’t be the woman or student I am today, if it weren’t for my participation in the Honors College.

Kathleen Vermillera–As a member of the Honors College, I was able to interact with professors and study subjects I never expected to enjoy. I found a love for interactive studying and smaller class sizes. Students in the Honors College actually have the ability to share their voice in each class. This helps provide each student the opportunity to feel confident in their public speaking abilities and feel more comfortable talking to superiors. On top of the studying aspects the Honors College offers, the community that is the Honors College represents a diverse student body and allows members to interact with students of various backgrounds. I have loved every opportunity the Honors College has provided for me to expand my borders and share my experiences with other students. Overall, being a member of the Honors College has given me the opportunity to not only better myself, but also to help other students feel more comfortable within such a large university.

Michael Walker and Leslie Pyo–Being honors students and graduating with honors represents a lifelong commitment to honesty, integrity, curiosity, and heart. Living in the Honors community for four years has taught us how to manifest these principles both inside and outside the classroom. However, it is our ability to extend these ideas beyond the university that gives the Honors experience profound and lasting meaning.

Update No. 2: It’s Complicated–the 2016 Edition of Honors Ratings and Reviews

By John Willingham, Editor

Honors colleges and programs are complex. If you think about it, how could they not be? Take a (generally) large public research university with many thousands of students, sprawling campuses, hundreds of professors, and the huge football stadium somewhere close at hand–and then create an honors program, or even a college within a college, a hybrid for high achievers who might have gone elsewhere.

Any book that attempts to rate or review honors programs can skim the surface and use only a handful of criteria that are relatively simple to assess, or the book can go inside honors in order to explain the more subtle differences. My first book on honors programs was, in retrospect, simplistic. The second was much more in-depth, but did not capture or explain precisely the many types and actual sizes of honors classes, especially sections that are “mixed” or “contract” sections. (A mixed section has honors students as well as non-honors students, the latter often majors in the discipline; in a typical honors contract section,  only one or two honors students receive credit for doing work in a regular section.)

The third book will be the best, and I hope will do justice to the complexity of honors education. But beware: the new book will somewhat complicated itself.
(And getting it out is complicated, too. I am hoping for mid-September. There will be 50 in-depth rated reviews, plus either 5 or 10 summary reviews, time permitting.)

A big reason involves a prospective student who has received an acceptance letter from the prestigious first-choice private college or public elite–but the need-based aid falls short. The “safe” public university, typically in-state or nearby, now receive more serious attention. It is at this point that the honors program or college can incline a student one way or the other.

It is obvious that prestige often plays a large role when it comes to first and second choices of a college. Now with the need-based aid falling short, the cost of prestige has become a problem for the prospective student. If the safe school does not have the same prestige, then what exactly does it have that would is most important to the student, prestige now set aside? Here is the time that parents and students look at the nuts and bolts.

Of course cost is still a huge factor. I will have a much-improved section on merit scholarships at each honors program.

How about small classes, the types of classes, the range of honors classes across disciplines? The data I have this time around is far better than I was able to receive for previous editions; the ratings will be much more precise for class size, type, and range.

But this is the main reason the new book will be somewhat complicated itself. In order to define these types of classes, there are additional categories: Number of Honors Sections; Honors Sections in Key Disciplines (15); Level of Enrollment–the extent to which honors students remain active in the programs; Honors-only class sizes, and the percentage of these actually taken; mixed class sizes, with the same information about the percentage of students; and contract sections, also with the percentage.

How about honors housing? Many prestigious private colleges have residence facilities that are outstanding. Now I will report not only the amenities for honors housing but also the availability of that housing. The rating will now show the reader the ratio of honors dorm space to the number of first- and second-year students in the program.

Did I say ratio? Yes, and some of the ratings can veer into wonkish territory. So…please be patient with the details, for they are where the decisions are made. The student who loves and thrives in small classes needs that detail, and the additional information about mixed and contract classes. The student who wants honors seminars and dozens of honors classes in his or her discipline, will focus on those details; the student who doesn’t have time for seminars will want the straight-from-the shoulder program. And the students who not only desire high-quality dorms but actually want to know if there is space in those dorms, will focus on that detail.

For many students and families, the merit aid and total cost will be the deciding factors. Notice that I did not say “detail.”

While the idea that an honors program “offers the benefits of the liberal arts experience along with the advantages of a major public research university” is generally true, the ways in which honors programs try to meet this goal vary greatly. The new book will be the best effort yet to light up the ways honors works in public institutions.

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.

University of Houston-Downtown Campus Introduces Honors Program

Editor’s Note: The profile of the new honors program at UH-Downtown comes from Houston attorney Jane Mueller Fly, who also teaches at the campus. Ms. Fly is also the author of The National Merit Journey: What You Need to Know, Part One and The National Merit Journey Part Two: The Parent’s Role.

The University of Houston–Downtown, located on the historic Buffalo Bayou in the heart of our nation’s fourth largest city, is one of four distinct universities within the University of Houston System. With an enrollment of over 14,000 students, UH-D is the second largest university in Houston, exceeded only by the University of Houston flagship campus located just 5 miles to the south.

UH-D is also the most ethnically diverse university in Texas, and ranks among the top 40 schools in the nation for graduating African-American and Hispanic students with bachelor’s degrees.

UH-D attracts talented students with 44 undergraduate majors, 8 master’s degree programs, and one of the lowest tuition rates of four-year universities in the state. For students interested in taking on an extra challenge, however, the University Honors Program is a good option.

The University Honors Program admitted its first students in 2014. In the fall of 2016, approximately 30 incoming freshmen will join the 50 students currently enrolled in the program.

Interested students must complete a written application. While applications are reviewed holistically, priority consideration is given to students meeting established criteria for SAT/ACT scores, high school GPA, and high school class rank. According to Mari L. Nicholson-Preuss, Ph.D., Director of the University Honors Program, the written application “provides students with the opportunity to elaborate on their academic experience and achievements in the areas of scholarship, leadership and citizenship.”

The application includes a required essay, an optional personal statement, and space for a URL in case the applicant would like to submit a link to supplemental information, such as a portfolio or a YouTube video.

Should a student’s high school record fall short of the criteria required for priority consideration, Dr. Nicholson-Preuss encourages him or her to apply by submitting, along with the application, a high school transcript as well as additional evidence of achievement.

According to Dr. Nicholson-Preuss, “[t]he options for additional evidence are rather broad and should allow the student to build a case as to why they should be admitted to the program. Supplemental evidence could include AP/IB scores, letters of recommendation, completion of leadership programs, capstone projects, service projects, University Interscholastic League, and other academic awards and honors, portfolios and writing samples.”

Once accepted into the University Honors Program, students commit to meet with both the director and a peer mentor each month, to attend one hour of weekly honors study hall each week, and to participate in at least 3 honors events each semester. Freshmen and sophomore students are expected to enroll in at least 30 credit hours per academic year, including 18 hours in Honors sections over the 2 years. In order to graduate from the University Honors Program, a student must maintain a 3.25 GPA and complete 30 hours of Honors credits.

Program perks include an Honors Lounge, the peer mentor program, social events such as attending a Houston Astros baseball game, scholarship opportunities, special lectures, invitations to community events, priority course registration, smaller classes, and opportunities to represent the university in public.

Honors students also have opportunities to take “linked courses”, and benefit from overlapping content or focus. The Honors Program is also developing additional thematically linked courses, focusing particularly on those that enhance UH-D’s commitment to service-based learning, community engagement, and social justice issues.

This is an exciting time to be part of the new Honors community at UH-D, as it continues to develop additional Honors courses and innovative plans for the future.

Honors College, Honors Program: Differences Revisited

In an earlier post, Honors College, Honors Program: What’s the Difference, we wrote about the sometimes minor differences between honors colleges and honors programs, while noting that, in general, honors colleges tend to have more structure, somewhat smaller classes, more staff support, and more state of the art residence halls.

In that post, the focus was on stats and structural differences. In this post, we want to highlight another reason that several flagship institutions have, and will continue to have, honors programs rather than honors colleges. Undoubtedly, the current trend in higher ed is to develop new honors colleges or to integrate existing honors programs into a separate honors college. This can lead to the perception that honors colleges are inherently better, more advanced, or more in tune with the need to create centers of excellence in public universities.

In the case of most of the public universities with an average U.S. News ranking of 70 or higher, however, the overwhelming preference is to offer an honors program–or programs–rather than establish a separate honors college within the universities. It is no coincidence that these schools, most notably Michigan, UCLA, UNC Chapel Hill, Virginia, Illinois, UW Madison, Washington, UT Austin, and Ohio State have very strong overall academic reputations and high faculty rankings across all major disciplines.  (UC Berkeley and William and Mary do not have any university-wide honors programs at all.)

When greater selectivity is combined with outstanding academic reputation and stellar faculty, students with Ivy-ish ambitions can say, with confidence, that the smaller communities and classes created by the honors programs at these schools are the final steps that bring them to substantive equivalence with elite private universities. The academic rep is present, and the faculty is strong even in non-honors classes. There is no real need to establish a separate, often larger honors college in order to concentrate the academic resources there, because those resources are university-wide.

There are exceptions, of course. When highly-ranked public universities receive generous private endowments or donations to establish honors colleges, they have done so. The Schreyer Honors College at Penn State is an outstanding example.  The Purdue Honors College is another that has benefited greatly from private donations.

The University of Maryland Honors College is another exception. Though not named for wealthy benefactors, the college was created almost half a century ago, in 1966, making it one of the oldest and most respected honors colleges in the nation.

Private endowments can also fund large honors colleges within flagships that are not rated among the top 60 public universities, making those honors colleges so notable that they often compete with public and private elites. Examples include ASU’s Barrett Honors College, the University of South Carolina Honors College, Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon, and the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at Ole Miss.

 

 

Pitt Honors College Offers Maximum Flexibility and High Quality

Although the University Honors College (UHC) at the University of Pittsburgh has many things in common with other honors colleges and programs at other leading public universities, the UHC opens itself to all students at Pitt “who choose to challenge themselves beyond the normal academic requirements” at the university.

The Cathedral of Learning at Pitt is the largest university building in the western hemisphere.

The Cathedral of Learning at Pitt is the largest university building in the western hemisphere.

Here’s what the UHC at Pitt has in common with other honors colleges:

“Like the honors colleges at many other universities with a similar mission, the UHC offers honors courses (approximately 80-100 per year) and operates honors residence halls (housing around 700 students per year in three facilities),”according to honors staff.

But it is the flexibility of the UHC approach that sets it off from most honors colleges and programs, although some others, most notably the Echols Scholars Program at UVA and the Michigan State Honors College offer a lot of flexibility as well.

Unlike most programs, the special opportunities offered through the UHC “are open to all academically talented and committed undergraduate students who choose to pursue them,” the college reports.

“Second, students design their honors experience and can take honors courses or not as they wish.”

In addition,the UHC offers a range of specialized advising, several distinctive research programs, and even offers a unique interdisciplinary major (“Politics and Philosophy”) and a degree bestowed by the UHC itself: a Bachelor of Philosophy (BPhil) degree.

Here are some of the outstanding accomplishments of Pitt UHC students:

• 369 prestigious national and international awards won by students mentored through the UHC’s national scholarship office since 2008.
• 241 BPhil degrees earned by students since 2008.
• 639 Brackenridge Research Fellowships completed by students since 2001.
• 73% of the 202 students mentored by UHC pre-health advisors in 2013 accepted and matriculated into the professional program of their choice (vs. the national benchmark average of 42%)

“The five foundational programs of the UHC – honors courses, honors advising, honors research programs, the BPhil degree, and honors housing – offer a mix of opportunities for undergraduate students to obtain an enriched education,” the UHC tells us.

“These excellent programs are supported by a committed UHC staff of 16 who work effectively and collegially, and by the UHC Faculty Fellows (currently 45 Pitt faculty who are most active in honors programming) and UHC Student Ambassadors (currently 48 Pitt undergraduate students) who volunteer their assistance.”

Pitt began an Honors Program in 1978 and formally converted this program to the University Honors College in 1987. The open access, non-membership policy was initiated by Dr. G. Alec Stewart, the Program Director, who later became the first Dean of the UHC, a position he held until he passed away in 2010. Dr. Edward M. Stricker was appointed the second Dean of the UHC in 2011. Dr. Peter Koehler joined the UHC in 2012 as Academic Assistant to the Dean, and Dr. Gordon Mitchell was named UHC Assistant Dean in 2014.

The UHC, along with other highly flexible programs at UVA, Michigan State, Cincinnati, and UCLA will be reviewed more extensively in our 2016 Review of Sixty Public University Honors Programs.

Ah, the Choices–Private Elite, Liberal Arts, Public Honors: One Family’s Story

Editor’s Note: This article comes from Jason Rose, an Illinois attorney with two extremely bright children, one now a freshman and the other a high school senior. What Jason has to say is especially relevant to families with highly-qualified students and with incomes that leave them in the infamous “donut hole” when it comes to financial aid. What to do when that elite college waitlist notice arrives, or even a rejection or two, despite a 34 ACT and 4.7 HSGPA?

As many parents know, this is the range when anything can happen: your child could do well at any university in the English-speaking world, but the capricious nature of elite admissions today makes acceptance unlikely for all but a fortunate few. Jason’s family’s story also provides an insightful look into the ways the winnowing process works–what students think they want is likely to change, especially with the all-important college visits. And the money–it’s hard to know what you’re willing to pay until that coveted acceptance doesn’t come with much, or any, aid. Now for Jason’s story…

My family in a nutshell: I am a 49 year old husband and parent of two teenagers: an 18-year-old daughter, Tori, (currently a freshman at a college to be named at the end of this article) and a 17-year-old son, Jake, (currently a high school senior).

Our goals: Helping guide Tori and Jake through the college admissions process without driving them, my wife, or myself crazy. Figuring out a way to make college relatively affordable. Figuring out what’s important and what’s NOT. In other words, what to sweat and what to let slide.

Tori (in a nutshell): While excelling in debate and orchestra in high school, Tori is a natural writer, researcher, and future politician. Voted most opinionated by her classmates, Tori is not interested in partying, at least not yet anyway. Although at times anxious, Tori is warm and friendly with those whom she is comfortable with. An eager learner who is well liked by her teachers, perhaps a future lawyer, professor or political wonk. For now, a likely English or Political Science major.

Issues: Attending a powerhouse public high school in an affluent suburb in northern Illinois, observers can almost believe that every student is a superstar (either academically, athletically, or in extra-curriculars) and that every family has a money tree in their backyard. While ideal in some respects, this sort of enriched environment often makes parents and their children a bit neurotic and ultra-competitive.

The Plan: Panic. No, just kidding. Read and research every admissions book and blog, every well known website, and every major college ranking service. My favorite websites were Niche, College Confidential, and Public University Honors. My favorite book about the various colleges was the venerable Fiske Guide to Colleges, which does an excellent job of going beyond the numbers and provides the reader with a feel for over 350 colleges. Later, during Tori’s senior year, I discovered the recently published book, A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs, which is the definitive book in the industry regarding the strengths of the various honors programs.

Junior Year: We visited many schools during Tori’s junior year so that we could get a feel for them all. During the visits, we quickly realized that each school has its own distinctive personality. During her junior year, Tori took the ACT multiple times, since we knew that an additional point could make the difference between getting in and getting rejected by a top school (or of getting scholarship money or not). By the end of her junior year, Tori had scored a 34 on her ACT and was sitting with a 4.7 weighted Grade Point Average, making her a very attractive candidate for most schools.

But without a hook (meaning that Tori was neither an athlete nor a legacy nor an underrepresented minority), we knew that entrance into the elite private schools was no sure thing. And even if Tori were to be accepted into a top private school, we were still not sure whether that was the best way to go.

As a quirky, intellectual type, Tori initially thought she would prefer a liberal arts school where she would benefit from close interaction with dedicated professors, small class sizes and a nurturing administration. We started by touring several fabulous liberal arts colleges on the east coast and in the Midwest, including Wellesley, Brandeis, Wesleyan, Carleton and Macalester; a few popular midsized schools (Boston University, Tulane University); and a few elite academic powerhouses (Yale, Brown, Northwestern University, University of Chicago).

What we learned during each visit is that each school had a distinct personality. Sometimes it came from the way the students interacted with each other or from the way the admissions officers would go through their spiels. Wherever it came from, it was palpable, something you could just feel.

But a funny thing happened during our search….after 5 or 10 visits, Tori realized that she was attracted to colleges in major cities. This was a major monkey in the wrench, since most of schools in major cities were typically larger, research powerhouses, while many of the best liberal arts colleges were in idyllic small towns, often far from any major city.

Senior Year (First Semester): By the beginning of Tori’s senior year, we thought that we were well prepared for the year ahead and the upcoming admissions process. At this point, Tori’s college list was in serious transition. Several colleges in major cities were added (welcome University of Minnesota, University of Pittsburgh, University of Texas at Austin, Rice University, Washington University at St.Louis and Emory University, among others) while the original target liberal arts colleges, which had at first appeared to be a wonderful fit, dropped out of the picture one by one. With the inclusion of several larger public schools, I began to look into the honors programs at Texas-Austin, Minnesota and Boston University.

Fortunately, two of the public schools on Tori’s list (Minnesota and Pittsburgh) had rolling admissions, which meant that Tori would receive acceptances from these schools in a matter of weeks. Knowing that Tori had acceptances from two very good schools early in the process (with scholarships from both schools) reduced the collective stress somewhat.

Meanwhile, I created color-coded charts listing the various application and scholarship deadlines and Tori got to work on her common application essay and the various mini-essays which the various colleges would require. By the end of the 2014, Tori had applied to twelve colleges, more than most students but not an extreme number, at least from our perspective. In our case, the number was appropriate since Tori was applying to several elite colleges with shrinking accepting rates and because Tori was not yet willing to limit herself to just one area of the country.

The net was also relatively wide since we had still not talked much as a family about exactly how much money had been saved and how much money might have to be borrowed in the future. Admittedly, the matter of how to fund college for two students was something that probably should have been discussed much earlier in the process.

Senior Year (Second Semester): Tori applied to one school early action, Yale. Deferred…which meant that we would not know until the end of March whether she would be admitted to Yale and the other elite schools that she applied to. While some students already had acceptances in hand to their dream schools, we could tell that Tori’s second semester would be stressful as we awaited decisions from most of the schools that she applied to.

The various reactions to Tori’s deferral from Yale were particularly interesting. In some cases, people would ask us “Is Tori o.k?”, sensing that Tori might be disappointed by the deferral and knowing that the odds for Tori to get in were not great. Others, however, would get excited and say “that’s amazing,” knowing that the Ivy league was just a pipe dream for most students and that most students would not have the grades and test scores to even contemplate attending an Ivy league school.

By February and March, the results started to roll in. Tori would eventually be accepted by 9 of the 12 schools that she applied to, with one school offering her a spot on the waitlist and two Ivy league schools (Yale and Brown) rejecting her. The schools that accepted Tori ran the geographic gamut, in the Midwest, South and along the eastern seaboard. Several of the schools were excellent public research universities (Texas, Minnesota, Pittsburgh), but Tori also was accepted into several smaller elite private schools, including Rice, Emory, Tulane, Washington University (“WUSTL”) and Boston University.

Decision Time: During our visit last fall to St. Louis, Tori had fallen in love with WUSTL, and when she was accepted, Tori was starting to see herself as spending her next four years there. But when the various financial aid packages came rolling in, we were quickly seeing that our family fell into the so-called donut (where families are relatively well off but not so wealthy that they could afford to pay $50,000-65,000 per year to have their child attend college). Some of these schools in fact were willing to work with us, but reductions of $5,000-10,000/year (while certainly substantial) only made a dent on the four year cost of an education.

Meanwhile, a weekend trip to Texas (to see Texas-Austin and Rice) was changing the list of favorites. In particular, Tori became enamored during her Texas trip not only with the city of Austin but also with UT’s Plan II Honors Program, which was widely regarded as being one of the very best honors programs in the country. The venerable but outstanding Fiske Guide to Colleges had touted Plan II as being one of the nation’s most renowned programs and also one of the best values in the country…at least for students in Texas who would pay in-state tuition. Additionally, A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs had also listed Plan II as being one of the very best honors programs in the country. But would out-of-state tuition push UT-Austin into the group with some of the other excellent, but ultimately unaffordable options.

At this point, the focus went towards some of the schools that had offered Tori sizable scholarships, most notably Tulane and Pittsburgh. Another trip to New Orleans impressed but did not lead to a commitment. This would be a decision that would go down to the wire.

The Decision: With May Day soon approaching, Tori decided that she wanted to go to Austin and that she wanted to take advantage of Plan II’s interdisciplinary curriculum. This, frankly, was a bit of a shocker because Tori is more of an intellectual than a sports fan. Most people who knew her expected Tori to select a smaller school, not a major research university with 50,000 students known at least somewhat for its prowess in the various major sports. At this point, we reached out to Texas to see if there was any possibility of receiving a Non-Resident Tuition Exemption (“NRTE”). NRTEs are in short supply at Texas-Austin, but most of the various departments at UT (Engineering, Business, Plan II) have a limited number of NRTE each year. In this case, we explained that while Tori would love to attend Texas-Austin, an NRTE would be needed to turn this dream into a reality.

Just days before May Day, we received the word from UT-Austin: Tori would be extended a small scholarship, which would be linked to an NRTE. Tori would be heading to Austin, Texas.

The Aftermath: So how’s it going so far? Two months into the school year, Tori is making new friends, enjoying her new environment, the honors dormitories at UT, and the improved climate–and excelling in the classroom. There will certainly be stressful days ahead and obstacles to overcome but at this point it looks like Tori absolutely made the right decision for herself. But I can’t spend too much time mulling over the past year: our second child, Jake, is now a high school senior and so we are going over a new set of options with a new set of decisions to be made.

Penn State Schreyer Dean: Honors College is a Gateway and Incubator for ALL Students

Editor’s Note: The following guest article is from Christian M.M. Brady, Ph.D., Dean of Schreyer Honors College at Penn State University. The College is a recognized leader in honors education, and one of only seven to receive a five mortarboard rating in A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs.

“Honors programs and colleges are each as distinctive and unique as the college or university of which they are a part.” This is how I begin every presentation I make to prospective students and their parents. There is no one set definition of what an honors program is, other than that all programs have the general goal of enhancing and enriching a student’s academic experience. The mission, vision, character, nature, and experience of each program or college will vary widely even as they all achieve that single goal.

I have had the great pleasure to be the director Tulane University’s Honors Program and I am now in my tenth year as dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State University. I have also been a part of and led reviews of numerous other honors programs and colleges around the country. This combination of intimate working experience and the opportunity to survey the national landscape has led me to the personal conviction that honors education should be built upon two pillars resulting in an “osmotic incubator.”

Osmotic

“Accessibility,” “permeability,” and “leaven” are all terms I have used to describe this attribute. I remained a pre-med student long enough to know that “osmosis” is the process by which molecules can pass through a membrane from one region to another. Honors education may be thought of in these terms, to a certain extent, taking in students at different stages while at the same time the college should be making contributions to the rest of the university.

In the Schreyer Honors College (SHC), as in all programs, resources are limited and therefore so is the number of students we can enroll. At Penn State we are able to enroll up to 300 first-year students as Schreyer Scholars. The total first-year enrollment at Penn State [all campuses] is nearly 20,000 students so this represents a very small percentage of the whole. It is the nature of honors programs that they are small in size so that the impact upon the students can be maximized, but that makes it all the more imperative that they be a mechanism for taking in students after their first year.

The “Gateway” entrance to the SHC was already in place at Penn State long before my arrival and it is an excellent solution to the challenge of finding the right size for an honors college. Students who have achieved a minimum GPA of a 3.7 may apply for admission into the SHC and in this manner those students who only “hit their stride” once in college can also have access to the benefits of an honors experience.

Aside from financial concerns, the primary constraint for any honors program is ensuring that our students will have the faculty support and direction they need. The Gateway selection is determined by the student’s major department; thus the department is able to ensure that they do not accept more students than they can supervise and support through their academic career, which culminates in an honors thesis.

I also believe that this egalitarian approach is in keeping with the ethos of Penn State, a land-grant institution that remains committed to the mission of providing access to education for all citizens of our commonwealth. Through the Gateway process we are able to recognize those students who have had a stellar academic career since arriving at Penn State and give them an opportunity further to excel.

This osmotic property of honors education should not be limited to enrollment. We also strive to have a positive impact in the Penn State community, moving outwards into the rest of the university. I believe that honors education should never be a “cloistered” community, set aside with few coming in and even less going out. Rather we seek to collaborate with colleges, institutes, programs, and student organizations to make a real and positive impact on our community. When we invite major speakers, such as last year when we hosted Earvin “Magic” Johnson for our Shaping the Future Summit, we set aside a dinner or reception for a smaller group of students and faculty, but the primary event is always for the entire community, both within Penn State and our geographic region.

The same is true in terms of pedagogy. Small honors courses with committed students allow for faculty to try out new and different learning and instruction techniques. We also make sure that once our honors students have enrolled in courses, any available seats in honors classes are available to all students at Penn State. They have to meet the same standards as our honors students, but they also receive the same education in the classroom. This is often how many of our Gateway Scholars begin their honors path at Penn State. Honors classes are also often the site of great innovation that benefits the entire university. This role of being a test-bed leads to my second pillar of honors education: we should be the incubator of innovation within the university.

Innovative Incubator

The concept of a tech or business “incubator” is known to most by now. These are programs, communities, or groups that provide the resources and capital necessary for entrepreneurs to move their ideas to products. We have a student organization at Penn State that strives to be just such a place for our students, Innoblue. I am their adviser, but a number of Scholars, both alumni and current students, are a part of this exciting enterprise. This concept is also how I view our role in education, “to improve educational practice and to be recognized as a leading force in honors education nationwide” (from the SHC Vision statement).

Honors education is a place where we, our students and faculty, can experiment, try different teaching methods, subjects, and curricula. This can happen because we have a great combination of engaged and creative faculty and highly motivated students. Our small size means that we can be nimble. Our faculty can try something new, knowing that our students will be able to give them instant, critical, and valuable feedback. If it works, great! We have a new course or program. If not, that is OK as well. We will have the information needed to know whether we can simply tweak it and get it right or if it really is not going to work after all. Finally, if it really works and is scalable we can take that to the rest of the university and everyone will be enriched.

This is what I believe honors education should be, an “osmotic incubator” that allows for great ideas and people to flow through enriching not only our students but our entire community. It makes for an exciting environment, full of new and nimble minds with committed and excited participants. In other words, it is why I love my job.