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

Attacks on the humanities and social sciences have increased since the Great Recession, even at a time when the critical thinking skills associated with these disciplines are urgently needed to navigate the sometimes bizarre world of facts, alternative facts, distortions, and outright lies.

Indeed, with the decline of humanities departments, we might be nearing the time when honors colleges and programs will be the focal point of liberal arts education in many public universities. (Below is a discussion of what the nation’s largest honors college is doing to promote the humanities and “civic education.”)

The economic downturn along with rising college tuition costs forced many parents and prospective college students to zero in on courses of study that provide near-term financial results and security. The trend is so strong that, recently, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point announced a plan to eliminate 13 humanities and social science majors.

These include English (excluding English for teacher certification); French; geography and geosciences; German; history (excluding social science for teacher certification); philosophy; political science; sociology; and Spanish.

Studies consistently show that voters with college degrees turn out in greater numbers than those with lower levels of education, but among college-educated voters it is likely that the type of coursework taken in college is an additional contributing factor to greater and more perceptive participation in civic life.

In the higher ed world, this link between education and civic engagement is known as the “civic education hypothesis.” A recent paper by Jacob Andrew Hester of the University of Alabama and Kari Lynn Besing of Indiana University argues persuasively that honors seminars, notably in the humanities and social sciences, “can and often do impart the civic skills that, the civic education hypothesis posits, enable political participation and lead to increased involvement in politics and civic life.”

Many public universities are unable to offer small, discussion-focused classes in these disciplines. The authors contend that larger lecture sections do not develop  “the classic skills associated with politics: language, rhetoric, public speaking, debate, and critical thinking.” Students can, however, develop these skills in an honors college or program that offers small seminar sections in Gen Ed courses.

Humanities and social science departments have for centuries sought to inculcate these “classic skills.” For years they have been losing faculty; now, with the elimination of majors, more faculty will be cut and course sections will be reduced, probably leading to larger classes with no opportunity for discussion. Where will these disciplines, with their manifold intersections, survive in a format conducive to civic education? Honors colleges and programs–and the mission is critical.

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

“Honors education and the humanities share core values, including the importance of deep, sustained reading. Students of history, literature, and philosophy confront complex and demanding texts and develop sophisticated methods of analyzing these texts….Both humanities and honors value not only high levels of reading skill but thoughtful responses to texts and an ability to integrate them into broader knowledge, reaching toward not just learning but wisdom. Such habits run counter to the mindless consumption of infobits.”

Some of the brightest students are math, science, and engineering majors, and their numbers are on the rise. Their analytical skills are seldom in question–indeed, they are often amazing. But the classes in their majors offer little discussion and, as Hester points out, “Math courses [for example] rarely involve discussion or conceptualizing social issues, and very rarely if ever do math instructors connect the development of mathematical skills to political discourse.”

On the other hand, Hester and Besing write, the “University of Alabama (UA) Honors College has an explicit goal of developing ‘agents of social change.’ At the heart of the honors experience are three-hour, interdisciplinary, honors seminars for no more than fifteen students. To graduate with honors, UA students must complete no fewer than six hours of seminar credit, but often students complete more.

“In contrast to the traditional academic lecture, the skills developed in a seminar are uniquely suited for the development and application of citizenship behaviors. In particular, UA honors seminars stress discussion, reflection, writing, and debate, providing students the opportunity to practice each behavior in a controlled environment. Through the seminar experience, honors students are expected to engage the skill sets that produce interest and competence in public affairs more frequently than non-honors students.”

To test their hypothesis that honors programs can promote civic education, Hester and Besing surveyed University of Alabama Honors College students to answer the following question: “To what extent has your experience at this institution contributed to your knowledge, skills, and personal development in the following areas: Voting in local, state, or national elections?”

The conclusion: “Students who engage in a curriculum with more opportunities to develop civic skills are more likely to respond that their institution has contributed to their interest in voting. This finding lends support for the civic engagement hypothesis within the context of an honors education. Specifically, it suggests that students in the UA Honors College are more likely to respond that their education has contributed to their interest in voting. Similarly, our findings suggest that the amount of reading and writing in their curriculum positively correlates with students’ perception that their education has had an impact on their interest in voting.”

“Our argument is that seminar courses are likely to contribute to an honors student’s interest in participating in politics, but we do not believe that honors electives have the same effect. For example, an elective honors lecture course in accounting is likely to be more enriching than a non-honors version of the course but is not likely to build political skills in the same way that a seminar does.”

“On one side of the debate, policymakers, employers, and administrators extol the benefits of a STEM education, e .g ., technological innovation, expansion of research, and the financial payoffs of a labor force with robust science and mathematics skills. On the other side, classical theories of higher education argue that a college degree is about more than the development of a professional skill set on the way to a career; it is about the development of each individual’s ability to function as a citizen in a democratic society. An honors education provides a unique opportunity for higher education institutions to satisfy both sides of the debate, proving sufficient rigor for STEM students while also grounding students in the classical purposes of higher education.”

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Honors Programs Plus Strong Merit Aid: Alabama Honors College

Editor’s Note:  This is the second post in a new, lengthy series that will highlight ten or more public university honors colleges and programs that are (1) excellent academically and (2) offer substantial merit aid either through the honors program or the university as a whole.

For many readers it will come as no surprise to learn the the University of Alabama and its honors college offers some of the most generous merit aid packages in the country to high-achieving students. Yet our recent visit to UA sites revealed an even larger range of excellent scholarships than we had thought were available.

Before a listing of those awards (see below for national merit, in-state, and OOS), please know that the Honors College, despite being the largest in the nation (possibly as many as 7,000 students), nevertheless earned a 4.5 (out of a possible 5.0) rating in our latest book, Inside Honors. 

The major academic strengths of the college are a very large selection of honors classes, including honors sections in most academic disciplines; and an average honors class size of 26.6 students, even counting honors classes in the various departments. Honors students also do most of their honors work in honors-only classes, i.e., in classes that have few or no non-honors students.

Excellent honors residence halls are another strength of the college. The honors residence community includes Blount and Paty Halls, but almost 60% of honors students living on campus reside in Ridgecrest North and South, while another 28% live in Ridgecrest East and West.

“These buildings feature 4-bedroom suites with private bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living/dining area, and a kitchenette. The kitchenette has a full-size refrigerator, microwave, and cabinet space. The bedrooms feature height-adjustable beds with extended twin mattresses.”

Honors students are increasingly successful in winning prestigious Goldwater Scholarships, including the maximum of four allowed to a single college, in 2017. The award goes to outstanding sophomores and juniors who are working in the STEM disciplines. UA students have also won 15 Rhodes Scholarships and 16 Truman Scholarships.

MERIT AID FOR NATIONAL SCHOLARS

National Merit Finalists can receive the value of tuition for up to five years or 10 semesters for degree-seeking undergraduate and graduate (or law) studies. In addition,

–One year of on-campus housing at regular room rate (based on assignment by Housing and Residential Communities.

A $3,500 per year Merit Scholarship stipend for four years. A student must maintain at least a 3.3 GPA to continue receiving this scholarship stipend. If a corporate-sponsored scholarship from the National Merit Corporation is received, the total value cannot exceed $3,500. (For example, if you receive a corporate-sponsored scholarship of $2,000 per year, UA will contribute $1,500 per year to reach the total stipend amount of $3,500. There is a one-time allowance of $2,000 for use in summer research or international study (after completing one year of study at UA).

Technology Enrichment Allowance $1,000.

National Merit Semifinalists are also eligible for extremely generous aid as Presidential Scholars, amounting to full tuition for four years. The award requires a 32-36 ACT or 1450-1600 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA. Recipients “will receive the value of tuition, or $41,800 over four years ($10,470 per year). Students graduating with remaining tuition scholarship semester(s) may use these monies toward graduate school and/or law school study at UA.”

ACADEMIC ELITE SCHOLARSHIPS

To be considered for the Academic Elite Scholarships, a student must be accepted as a member of the University Fellows Experience (UFE). The student must maintain membership in the UFE to continue holding an Academic Elite Scholarship. Complete information on the UFE can be found on the University Fellows website.

There are a total of 8 academic elite scholars named each year. The pool of eligible applicants typically exceeds 1,000 students. These scholarships are awarded for 4 years. Seven Academic Elite Scholarship recipients will receive: Tuition plus one year of on-campus housing at regular room rate, $8,500 stipend per year, and a $1,000 one time technology stipend

The top Academic Elite Scholarship recipient will receive: Tuition, one year of on-campus housing at regular room rate, $8,500 stipend for the first year, $18,500 stipend for years 2-4, $5,000 study abroad stipend (to be used after at least one academic year is completed), a $1,000 one time technology stipend.

Eligibility for the University Fellows Experience requires an ACT score of 32 or a SAT score of 1450 (evidence-based reading and writing plus math) and a high school GPA of 3.8 who is accepted into UA will be eligible to complete the University Fellows Experience application. Applicants must first complete the Honors College application, and then must complete the UFE application. The general UFE application deadline is December 15.

 

OTHER MERIT AID ESPECIALLY FOR IN-STATE STUDENTS

First time freshmen who meet the December 15 scholarship deadline, have a qualifying score on the ACT or SAT and have at least a 3.5 cumulative high school GPA through the junior year will be eligible for the following merit-based scholarships:

Crimson Achievement Scholar: A student with a 25 ACT or 1200-1230 SAT score and minimum 3.5 cumulative GPA will be selected as a Crimson Achievement Scholar and will receive $8,000 over four years ($2,000 per year).

UA Legends: A student with a 26 ACT or 1240-1270 SAT score and minimum 3.5 cumulative GPA will be selected as a UA Legends Scholar and will receive $10,000 over four years ($2,500 per year).

Capstone Scholar: A student with a 27 ACT or 1280-1300 SAT score and minimum 3.5 cumulative GPA will be selected as a Capstone Scholar and will receive $16,000 over four years ($4,000 per year).

Collegiate Scholar: A student with a 28-29 ACT or 1310-1380 SAT score and a minimum GPA of 3.5 a student will be named a Collegiate Scholar and will receive $20,000 over four years ($5,000 per year).

Foundation in Excellence Scholar: A student with a 30-31 ACT or 1390-1440 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA will be named a Foundation in Excellence Scholar and will receive $32,000 over four years ($8,000 per year).

Presidential Scholar: A student with a 32-36 ACT or 1450-1600 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA will be selected as a Presidential Scholar and will receive the value of tuition, or $41,800 over four years ($10,470 per year). Students graduating with remaining tuition scholarship semester(s) may use these monies toward graduate school and/or law school study at UA.

 

MERIT AID ESPECIALLY FOR OUT-OF-STATE STUDENTS

Note: These are the same requirements as those above for in-state students, but the dollar amounts are larger. Please note especially the extremely high value of the Presidential Scholarship for OOS students.

Capstone Scholar: A student with a 27 ACT or 1280-1300 SAT score and a minimum 3.5 cumulative GPA will be selected as a Capstone Scholar and will receive $20,000 over four years ($5,000 per year).

Collegiate Scholar: A student with a 28 ACT or 1310-1340 SAT score and a minimum GPA of 3.5 will be named a Collegiate Scholar and will receive $24,000 over four years ($6,000 per year).

Foundation in Excellence Scholar: A student with a 29 ACT or 1350-1380 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA will be named a Foundation in Excellence Scholar and will receive $52,000 over four years ($13,000 per year).

UA Scholar: A student with a 30-32 ACT or 1390-1480 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA, he or she will be named a UA Scholar and will receive $76,000 over four years ($19,000 per year).

Presidential Scholar: A student with a 33-36 ACT or 1490-1600 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA will be selected as a Presidential Scholar and will receive $100,000 over four years ($25,000 per year). Students graduating with remaining scholarship semester(s) may use these monies toward graduate school and/or law school study at UA.