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.

Advertisements

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.

So Just How Big Are Those Honors Classes, Anyway?

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

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

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

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

Here are the results of our recent analysis:

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

Chemistry–33 sections, average of 40.3 students.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revised, September 8, 2014…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Choosing an Honors Program: Twenty Questions to Ask

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If the above check out, then:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the Point of an Honors College? Creativity, Idealism, Genuine Excellence

Editor’s Note:  The following article by Nancy M. West, Director, University of Missouri Honors College, originally appeared in the January 27, 2014, edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

At a baseball game two summers ago, as other parents cheered on their kids, I argued about the value of an honors college with the father of my son’s teammate, whom I’ll call Tyler.

Tyler’s dad is the kind of parent who blares constant “advice” to the coach and points out the mistakes of every child on the team but his own. Between innings, he asked what I did for a living. When I told him I had just been appointed to direct the Honors College at the University of Missouri, he sneered. “My ex-wife wants our oldest son to enroll in that, but I’m opposed. He plans to be a doctor. He needs good grades. He shouldn’t be taking harder classes.”

Then he looked me straight in the eye and asked, “What’s the point of an honors college, anyway?” It was hot, and I wanted to smack him. So I gave him a snooty answer about how I thought “any parent would want his child to challenge himself.” Needless to say, he didn’t respond well.

That exchange turned out to be the first of many conversations I’ve had about the value of an honors college. Like Tyler’s dad, though more politely, prospective students express concern that the challenge of an honors curriculum will jeopardize their GPAs, and therefore their chances of finding a job or getting into graduate school. So do their parents. Some people on campus bristle at the “elitism” of honors colleges, uncomfortable with the notion of singling out students for special attention and benefits.

Both of these viewpoints are understandable. More distressing has been my realization that the honors college often needs to be defended to administrators, from department chairs upward. Honors education has never been a cost-effective enterprise, given its demands for quality instruction, small classes, enhanced opportunities, and personalized service to students. As more and more colleges gravitate toward larger classes and online delivery, honors now seems like a luxury they can no longer afford.

We need then to think about honors colleges in a way that deals with current anxieties and economic pressures. And we need to state their value so that it can resonate with many people, even Tyler’s dad.

So what is the point of an honors college? There are two ways to answer that question. The first is in terms of students. Most high-ability students need individual attention. Honors colleges provide that. More important, they promote the value of striving for the best one can do. In an academic culture tainted by grade inflation, honors colleges celebrate true accomplishment, instilling in students the pride that comes with being thoroughly in earnest about their education.

As to GPA concerns: My experience has been that honors students often do better in their honors courses than in their non-honors courses. The reasons for this success are partly the quality of the instruction, partly the mentoring students receive from professors, but mainly the firepower that comes from putting smart, motivated students together. In the words of Rachel Harper, who coordinates our honors humanities series, “Surrounded by other high-achieving and curious students—both in their classes and in their living arrangements—honors students feel pressure in the best of ways to do well.”

Honors is thus the “natural home of pure meritocracy,” as my colleague David Setzer argues. Universities need such a home more than ever. While colleges become more like companies, and “excellence” increasingly refers to financial success, surely we can justify the value of an honors college by guaranteeing that it remains one space on the campus where deep thought flourishes, and where “excellence” still possesses meaning.

The other way to answer the question of an honors college’s value is in terms of its benefit to a university. For one, honors colleges enhance the prestige of their universities by enrolling high-achieving students who provide a leavening influence on the campus and then go on to achieve great things.

They also have the potential to serve as a “third place” for their universities. In 1989, the sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to refer to environments, separate from work and home, which people visit frequently and voluntarily. Examples include coffeehouses, cafes, salons, and the Internet.

Although they vary wildly in look and feel, third places share certain fundamental traits. They act as social levelers, discounting class status as a marker of social significance. Their mood is playful; their atmosphere is warm and friendly. They promote group creativity and lively conversation. Most important, they serve as anchors of a community, fostering broad and less scripted interactions than those we have at home or our regular workplaces.

“These shared areas have played an outsized role in the history of new ideas,” observes Oldenburg. And yet compared with other countries, America does not place much importance on third places. And what’s true of our country is also true of our universities. Faculty and staff rarely venture beyond the buildings that house their departments. University officials sequester themselves in spacious offices located within buildings populated exclusively by administrative offices. And students—too many of them these days—go from their classrooms to their part-time jobs to their apartments.

Universities need third places in order for new kinds of research and thinking to propagate. Honors colleges, meanwhile, need a new identity in order to successfully assert their value in the future.

Thinking about honors colleges as third places gives us a new and non-elitist way of asserting their value to a university. It reinforces how they can serve as spaces of creativity; conversation; intellectualism; collegiality. It also reinforces their potential as homes of interdisciplinarity. Like all third places, honors colleges are neutral ground, separate from departments and yet in the business of serving them all; as such, they provide an ideal space for the kind of “in between” collaboration required by interdisciplinary work. Honors colleges are where team-teaching—that activity we all say we should do more of but can’t because of departmental restrictions—really can happen.

This spring, thanks to the cooperation of the art history and English departments, I’m team-teaching an honors course called “Thinking About Color” with two other professors. The course is wildly interdisciplinary, focusing on subjects like Technicolor and the history of mauve. Our planning meetings for the course have been electrifying, intellectually and pedagogically. And in each meeting, ideas for collaborative research bubble up. I can’t remember ever feeling this creative, or collegial, about my teaching.

The answers I’ve articulated here all arrive at the same conclusion, which is that the “point of an honors college” is its idealism. Honors represents higher education at its best and most aspirational. If I could replay that dreadful conversation with Tyler’s dad from two years ago, that is what I’d tell him.

I’d also point out that my son, Silas, hit a double that day.

Honors Colleges vs. Honors Programs: NCHC Survey of Smaller Institutions

The leadership of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) has completed a survey of more than 400 honors colleges and programs, many of them at smaller institutions.  The average total enrollment at the colleges surveyed is 6,484.  The average size of the 50 larger state universities we surveyed was much larger, just under 25,000 students.

NCHC President Rick Scott, Dean of the Schedler Honors College at the University of Central Arkansas, released the report.

As we found earlier in the post Honors Colleges vs. Honors Programs, honors colleges tend to have a greater “value added” impact on large universities that are not as selective as some of their counterparts.  For example, UVA, UNC Chapel Hill, Michigan, and UT Austin do not have honors colleges, and their strong “value” is often validated by external rankings and other measures. 

All these universities have strong honors programs, but the extent to which they add value to the universities as a whole is less than the impact of honors colleges on less selective schools. The Barrett Honors College at Arizona State, for example, is a powerful value added feature for the university as a whole.

Most of the two-year and four-year colleges in the NCHC survey are not highly selective.  Therefore, it is not surprising to us that the NCHC survey did in fact show a significant difference in the size and positive impact of honors colleges at these school versus the impact of honors programs.

What this means for prospective students who are looking at honors options offered by smaller or less selective colleges is that, in general, the schools with honors colleges will have stronger honors components, especially in several extremely important categories.

Size–In smaller institutions, the size of the honors component can be especially important.  The survey showed that the average size of responding honors colleges was 814 students, but only 292 students for honors programs.  By contrast, in our evaluation of fifty large university honors colleges and programs, there was only a very slight difference in the relative size.

Staff–The survey found that honors colleges had an average of 4.9 full-time employees, while honors programs had only 1.2 FTEs.

Advising–In the very important area, 77 percent of honors colleges had their own advisers, and only 44 percent of honors programs did.

Prestigious Scholarships–Guidance for outstanding students applying for Rhodes, Truman, Goldwater and other awards was available in 45 percent of the honors colleges but in only 16 percent of honors programs.

Honors Housing–83 percent of honors colleges offered honors residence choices, but only 46 percent of honors programs did so.

Living/Learning Options–Again, 73 percent of honors colleges had living/learning communities, but only 33 percent of honors programs did.

Curriculum–Here, 73 percent of honors colleges also offered departmental honors, while 59 percent of honors programs did so.

Internships–Honors colleges offered much stronger opportunities for internships, 44 percent versus only 22 percent for honors programs.

 


At UVA You Can Be Both an Echols Scholar AND a Jefferson Scholar

In our book, A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs (2014), the Echols Scholars program at the University of Virginia was one of seven programs to receive the highest overall rating–five “mortarboards.” (Please see our Methodology page for more information about these two categories.)

The Jefferson Scholars program at UVA was not rated as an honors program because it is primarily a generous financial support program coupled with enrichment activities for only about 30 students each year.  The good news is that you can be both an Echols Scholar, which allows you almost total freedom in course selection along with housing and priority registration benefits, and a Jefferson Scholar, fortunate enough to receive the outstanding financial benefits and enrichment features of that program.

Admission to each program is, however, separate, so some students invited to be Echols Scholars do not receive Jefferson Scholarships, and some Jefferson Scholars are not in the Echols Program.

Admission to either program is highly selective, pretty much on a par with top Ivy standards.  UVA attracts quite a few students who have also been accepted to the most elite private institutions.  But here is what you receive in the way of support as a Jefferson Scholar:

“Intended to cover the entire cost of attendance for four years at the University of Virginia, the Jefferson Scholars’ stipend includes tuition, fees, books, supplies, room, board, and personal expenses.  In 2012-13, Jefferson Scholars from the Commonwealth of Virginia will receive over $25,000 each year, and out-of-state or international Jefferson Scholars will receive an annual stipend of over $50,000.  In addition to the financial component of the Scholarship is an extensive enrichment program which aims to support and nurture these students throughout their four years at U.Va.  Also an important part of the program is the community that develops between Scholars, Graduate Fellows, staff, and alumni.”

In a separate post and in our book we have estimated the admission requirements for Echols; the stats below are from the Jefferson Scholars site, and the admission requirements appear to be about the same as our estimates for Echols Scholars.   Class of 2016:

31 accepted

17 states represented, plus the UK

2260 average SAT

23 scholars had a perfect score of 800 on at least one section of the SAT

88 scores of 5 on AP exams

16 varsity athletes

 


 

 

MSU Lyman Briggs College Is a Great Answer to STEM Demand

While the state of Florida plans to charge less tuition for STEM majors, the Lyman Briggs College at MSU has been attracting students in these high-demand fields for more than 40 years without penalizing students in the humanities and social sciences.  Indeed, LBC is dedicated to bridging the gap between the hard sciences and the liberal arts.

The LBC began in 1967 in response to C.P. Snow’s famous concept that “Two Cultures” had grown up in academe, with the unfortunate results that education in what we now call the STEM subjects was often separated from education in the other “culture” of the humanities and social sciences.

The LBC welcomes about 625 freshmen each year, many of the honors students at MSU.  The core curriculum includes calculus, general chemistry, physics, biology, and a three-course sequence in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science (HPS courses).  Students take upper-division STEM courses in as many as 17 different majors and may choose to complete a capstone project that encompasses both major work and HPS classes.

Students have the benefit of much smaller classes, inquiry-based and research-oriented instruction, and frequent association with faculty and other STEM students who attend classes at LBC.

LBC students are eligible to become Undergraduate Learning Assistants as early as their sophomore year, giving them the opportunity to assist faculty with teaching and research.  In addition, through MSU’s excellent honors college, there are 94 Professional Assistants at LBC who work on research-intensive projects.

The results:  the freshman retention rate for LBC students is 95.5 percent.  Some 82-86 percent graduate in six years, versus an MSU average of 74-76 percent–an exceptionally strong figure given the rigor of STEM studies.  Nationally only about 50 percent of incoming STEM majors actually graduate with STEM degrees.  For LBC students, the percentage is 70 percent, including a strong rate for female students and students of color.

Finally, the number of LBC grads pursuing post-graduate work is 80 percent, an extremely high number.

 

Temple University Honors Program: Great Housing, Strong Curriculum

We are long overdue in writing a profile of the Temple University Honors College in Philadelphia, but what from what we have learned, we can say it is well worth writing about and considering as an honors option.

The college falls into our largest category, which includes programs with average SAT’s in the 1300’s.   The actual average score at Temple Honors College is 1334.  The college admits about 350 freshmen each year and has a total enrollment of 1,592, including some transfer students and non-freshman entrants.

As we have written in several profiles and in our book, we continue to believe that the quality and extent of the honors curriculum is the most important attribute of a program, not least because it provides a continuing focal point for honors contacts among students and faculty.

The Temple honors curriculum requires 10 honors courses and establishes yearly benchmarks that students must reach in order to avoid probation.   We believe this is an excellent policy, as it ensures the continuing involvement that sets the best honors programs apart from those that see students losing interest after the first year or two.

At the end of the freshman year, honors students must have completed at least three honors courses.  As sophomores, they must have completed six honors courses.  After their junior year, they must have at least eight honors courses under their belts and be able to work on honors projects, theses, and additional courses in the final year.

The other outstanding feature of the college is its living/learning community for honors students, the “1300” residence hall on the south side of campus.  The 1300 includes about 90 percent of freshman honors students, a very high percentage and one that likely contributes strongly to honors retention rates.

The 1300 is also outstanding because it houses more than 1,000 total honors students, including upperclassmen in apartment-type accommodations.  The other rooms are suites, and all are air-conditioned.   Many honors residence halls cannot house students across all four years, and most of those that do cannot match the amenities of 1300.

So along with Penn State Schreyer, Delaware, UMass Amherst, Pitt, and UConn honors, students in the northeast have another solid public option for honors education.

Apply as soon after January 1 as possible to be considered for the best scholarships, which are awarded by February 15.  The final application deadline for the university is March 1.