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

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Honors Testimonials–ASU Barrett 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 ASU, Barrett Honors College:

Raquel Camarena–In the fall of 2013, I began my awesome journey as a student at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University.  I have also had the opportunity to live in the honors residential campus for the past three years.  I love calling this place my “home” and have been spoiled by the fantastic residence halls where I resided and the wonderful friendships that I have made.  This year I have the opportunity to be an engineering peer mentor and am just one more advocate that students have while living as a resident here.  I love the social lounges, dining center, coffee shop, courtyards and the outdoor fireplace where friends can study and hang out together.   I really enjoy being challenged with the honor classes offered and the help of our Barrett advisers.  The Human Event classes were a welcome challenge where I learned to think and express myself in ways I had not expected.  I value the rigorous academics, the connections with faculty, staff and students and the impact of the many internships and service opportunities.  I especially enjoyed traveling to Chicago, Seattle and Portland through the Great American Cities Program.  It was fun to explore and do community service in these cities with Barrett peers and staff.  I love everything about Barrett, the Honors College and am one proud Barrett student!

Edward Joseph Nolan–Probably one of the most stand-out features of Barrett have to be the Human Event professors and their classes. I’ve had a wonderful experience in my class, discussing literature, its relevance, and the composition of argument, having been lucky enough to have a class full of interesting and surprisingly insightful peers. One of my worries before beginning at Barrett had been whether or not there would be people who would not just share my interests, but who could challenge them and make me think critically about my preconceptions. Not only was I able to find such in the students in Human Event class, but in the professor, as well. My professor, Dr. Barca, not only had higher expectations of us as students, but wanted us to actually put what we’re learning to use, encouraging us to edit and change or our work for the better and increasing our effectiveness as writers. As well, I very much enjoy the tie-ins to current events and society, bridging the gap between the abstract and theoretical concepts studied in class and making it applicable in the modern context. Not only that, but Dr. Barca’s kindness and enthusiasm for the class very much increases not just the propensity for learning, but the desire for learning in the Human Event. For those reasons it is the Human Event class, and the professors behind it, in my opinion that make Barrett an overall unique and formative experience.

Jessica Hocken–In the beginning, I thought the Honors thesis would be this scary beast, but with the help of my Director, Dr. April Miller a Human Event professor, she walked my thesis partner and me through the process.  I was able to cater the creative project to the nonprofit I co-founded, and use it for our national expansion in August to start up new student chapters.  The creative project was an incredible experience, especially because I could address an actual need and provide a solution to students struggling to start up human trafficking awareness organizations.

In addition, the Honors Advising office, specifically Matt & Kelly, were so helpful to Erin and me because they guided us through the initial process despite the fact we were sophomores.  They were so great about letting us know that you can start the Honors thesis whenever you want, and Barrett will be on your side.  The feeling Erin and I felt from first walking into their office to leaving was astronomically different.  The Honors Advisors are the best because they are so focused on your success.  Completing my creative project on something I love was such an incredible experience, and I am so glad that Barrett gave me this opportunity.

Shannon Ertz–Barrett was ultimately the reason that I chose to come to ASU. Coming from a small rural community the sheer size of ASU was overwhelming and intimidating. When I toured ASU I told my mom that we could go back to our hotel because I didn’t need to tour Barrett because I wasn’t going to go to school here. But after a persuading conversation with my mom we stuck around for the Barrett Information Session and Tour. I walked back out the front gates of Barrett grinning ear to ear and ecstatically telling my mom about how I could totally go to school here. Coming from a small area it was the sense of community that Barrett offered me, within the bigger picture of ASU, which ultimately led me to decide to go to college here. It is that same sense of community that drew me, that is one of my favorite things about Barrett. I love walking through the complex and seeing people that I not only recognize but feel comfortable stopping to say hello to. I love meandering into the office of my club advisor to ask random questions, grab a piece of candy, and discuss the latest plans for the club. I love walking into the dining hall and being greeted by Vicki’s smiling face as she says hi to all her “Barrett Babies”. I love the feeling of being a part of the Barrett community because at the end of the day ASU is still big and a bit intimidating. I love being an ASU Sun Devil but being able to walk into Barrett and feel recognized is such a huge part of why I love ASU.

Natalie Volin–The Barrett honors thesis project is by far the most rewarding part of my undergraduate career. The Barrett advisors worked with me to narrow my interests and create a plan for approaching professors. Once I found my thesis director and defined my project, I was able to proceed without limitations because I knew that Barrett offered substantial funding to support my endeavor. Now, as an undergraduate, I can say that I co-founded a nonprofit literary magazine and printed a 125-page inaugural issue! I am immensely proud of this accomplishment and it could not have been done without Barrett’s support. Thank you, Barrett, for pushing me to challenge myself and for helping me to celebrate my accomplishments!

Dr. Jacquelyn Scott Lynch–Barrett’s travel programs have long been an integral part of our students’ education. Since 1995, Honors faculty have designed, implemented, and evaluated these programs with an eye toward preparing our students to understand and operate effectively in a global context.  A standing honors faculty Travel Programs Committee establishes standards and norms for Barrett travel programs, supports Barrett faculty as they develop new programs, and evaluates existing programs to ensure that they contribute to Barrett’s culture of excellence and access. These programs have enjoyed astounding success; in the last twenty years, over 3000 Barrett students have traveled to over fifteen countries on six continents to participate in programs designed, taught, and overseen by Honors Faculty Fellows. Recently, the Travel Programs Committee helped Program Directors reimagine Barrett Travel Programs to include an online component, so that Barrett can offer travel experiences to students in a variety of income brackets. Since the inception of the Barrett Travel Programs, Honors Faculty Fellows have produced travel programs that prepare our students to understand their world in all of its cultural complexity, another way in which Barrett sets the gold standard for honors education.

Goldwater Scholar Profiles: ASU Barrett Honors Students

Editor’s Note: The post below by Arizona State writer Sarah Auffret is another in our series on 2014 Goldwater scholars from public university honors programs….

Three outstanding Arizona State University juniors who already are doing sophisticated research have won Goldwater Scholarships, the nation’s premier awards for undergraduates studying science, math and engineering.

Working in the laboratories of ASU senior faculty and scientists, the students carry out research ranging from developing biosensors for early detection of infectious diseases to conducting microelectronics research at ASU’s Flexible Display Center.

Recipients are Ryan Muller of Phoenix, majoring in biochemistry and molecular/cellular biology; Brett Larsen of Chandler, majoring in electrical engineering and physics; and Jakob Hansen of Mesa, a mathematics and economics major. Each of the four will receive $7,500 a year for up to two years.

All are in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, while Larsen is also in the Fulton Schools of Engineering. All three are enrolled in Barrett, the Honors College. A fourth student who received honorable mention is Samuel Blitz, a physics major from Scottsdale.

ASU students have won 55 Goldwater Scholarships in the last 21 years, placing ASU among the leading public universities.

Muller is a resourceful and motivated student who began doing research at ASU while still a student at North High School, and again the summer before his freshman year. Xiao Wang, assistant professor in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, remembers that even though Muller was initially the youngest member of the iGEM synthetic biology research team, others quickly began to rely on him.

“His ideas were fresh, innovative and motivating to the team,” says Wang. “In fact, the first day he volunteered in my lab, without any prior experience, he implemented a strategy to effectively screen for bacterial colonies that contained the correct transformed plasmid. The team began to rely on his resourcefulness.”

In subsequent years, Muller continued working on the team and was a key player in helping them develop a portable, low-cost biosensor system to detect pathogens in water supplies. They won a gold medal and a spot in the international championship event for one of the world’s premiere student engineering and science competitions.

Interested in expanding their work, Muller and others assembled a team of undergraduate researchers to seek additional funding. Last year, they were grand prize winners at the ASU Innovation Challenge and at the ASU Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative. Their fledgling company, Hydrogene Biotechnologies, may help cut down on water-borne diseases that can kill, such as acute childhood diarrhea.

Hansen, a graduate of Red Mountain High School, is a talented mathematician who has been a delight to his professors as someone who enjoys the formal beauty of mathematics, yet is committed to doing research into real problems that affect humans.

“Jakob is exceptionally talented at mathematics, and is one of relatively few undergraduates that I have taught at ASU who was equally enthusiastic about pure and applied mathematics,” says Jay Taylor, assistant professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistical Sciences. “He was always very keen to discuss the theory underpinning the techniques that I presented in class.

“For his project, he wrote a computer program to simulate a malaria outbreak in a small population and used this to investigate the conditions under which malaria will persist in small populations subject to seasonal variation in transmission intensity.”

Hansen participated in ASU’s Computational Science Training for Undergraduates last summer with Rosemary Renaut, professor of mathematics, who praised his mathematical sophistication to the Goldwater committee. He is continuing his research with Renault into more abstract problems.

Larsen, a graduate of Tri-City Christian Academy, received funding early in his career from the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative. Over the past two years, he has conducted research at ASU’s Flexible Display Center, developing ultra low-power circuits and applying advanced signal processing techniques to personnel detection along borders and in hostile territory.

Larsen says his interest in science was sparked by a Boy Scout leader, an electrical engineer who talked to him about subjects that enthralled him: objects traveling at the speed of light, the astonishing power of fusion and fission reactions, and theoretical designs for time machines and light sabers. Larsen was inspired to excel in science so he could push the boundaries of technology.

Called “a brilliant young man” by Antonia Papandreou-Suppappola, professor of electrical engineering, Larsen shares his love of science by mentoring a group of engineering freshmen and leading a science club for young children at the Child Crisis Center. In the future, he hopes to focus his work on developing mathematical models for defense applications.

“ASU’s success in the Goldwater competition is in large part due to the excellent opportunities our students have had to do advanced lab research with talented and committed faculty,” says Janet Burke, associate dean for national scholarship advisement in Barrett, the Honors College.

“It goes without saying that the drive and brilliance of the students themselves are both important. I have a top-notch Goldwater committee who do a superb job of selecting the students whose applications will bubble to the top of the pile.”