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 Programs Plus Strong Merit Aid: ASU Barrett Honors College

Almost certainly the best-known honors college (or program) in the nation, the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State is also among the most effective at achieving “honors completion,” which means that a very high percentage of its students not only graduate but also finish all of their honors requirements, including a thesis, before doing so.

Unfortunately, it has been the case with many honors programs that not even a majority of first-year enrollees complete all honors requirements. (Even so, honors students who leave their programs still graduate from their universities at a very high rate.)

The other strengths of Barrett are a fully committed Dean who has a genuine passion for public honors education, plus some of the best honors residence halls in the nation. Notably, the residence halls can also accommodate virtually every first- and second-year honors student, rare for any honors program. The Dean also has a very large staff of more than 60 along with additional support from more than 40 faculty members, a good thing considering that Barrett, with almost 7,000 students, is probably the second largest honors college in the nation. (We estimate that the University of Alabama Honors College is probably the largest.)

This is an extremely important but sometimes overlooked factor in selecting an honors college. The Barrett support is evident in the very high number of its students who win prestigious national awards, especially Fulbright Student Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships for undergrads in STEM disciplines, Udall Scholarships, and Truman Scholarships.

Almost 60 percent of Barrett graduates go to top graduate or professional schools, while 30 percent choose immediate employment; the remainder choose travel or volunteer work.

Many of the honors credit classes at ASU are large, but the honors-only classes offered by the honors college average 15.9 students. Barrett also makes very extensive use of honors “contracts” that allow honors credit for additional work in regular class sections, some of which are very large.

National Scholar Merit Aid

Sorting out the merit aid options at Barrett is a bit difficult, but at the outset we estimate that more than 80 percent of Barrett students who have no demonstrated need receive an average of more than $8,000 in merit aid. With an average ACT of 29, new SAT of 1340-1350,  and a core HSGPA of 3.79, Barrett students receive generous support. All told, some 95 percent of Barrett students receive merit aid, and more than 40% receive need-based aid on top of their merit aid.

But…the term “full ride” is not used by ASU or Barrett in describing the aid. In a very few cases, the combination of university aid, Barrett aid, and need-based aid may come close, but such is not the norm even for national scholars.

The Dean told us last year that “The university also has uncapped national scholar awards that are the same amount for National Merit, Hispanic and Achievement Scholars. These are full out of state tuition for all OOS national scholars, even if it increases as they are at ASU, and $16,000 per year for in-state national scholars. Both in-state and out-of-state national scholars also receive $1,500 towards research costs for research they do, and $1,000 for any honors travel they carry out while at ASU.” (Note: these “extras” more than offset the Barrett charge to each student of $750 per semester.)

So what the school lacks in providing full rides it makes up for in funding “uncapped” merit aid for national scholars that is still quite generous. If you qualify, you should get it= uncapped, or no limits on number of awards.

The university has a link to a calculator that allows prospective award recipients to enter test scores, GPA, class standing, in-state or OOS residency, and national merit scholar status to determine the amount of aid and the resulting net cost of attending. Our “tests” of the calculator yielded aid totals somewhat less than reported above but approximate. It appears that much higher test scores might not affect award amounts nearly as much as NMS status.

The proof is in the pudding: More than 750 national scholars are now enrolled in Barrett. In a recent year, 117 National Merit Finalists and 105 National Hispanic Scholars enrolled as first-year students.

Of particular interest is that “National Merit Semi-Finalists who are admitted to ASU with an official SAT or ACT score on file with the university will receive a placeholder New American University Scholar award (such as a President’s, Provost’s, or Dean’s scholarship).” This placeholder award will be upgraded to the New American University Scholarship when

– The student has moved from National Merit Semi-Finalist status to National Merit Finalist status with the NMSC.

– The student lists Arizona State University as his or her first choice school with the NMSC by the NMSC’s posted deadline.

– The student has been admitted to Arizona State University.

The aforementioned President, Provost, and Dean’s Scholarships vary according to OOS status and test scores.

Other Merit Aid

For this category, variations in test scores, GPA, and class rank definitely make a difference. We found no evidence that these awards are uncapped, so even though the value of scholarships might not change much depending on your stats, the prospects of your receiving the award at all probably do depend on higher test scores, etc.

First, consider an OOS applicant with stats higher than the Barrett mean: ACT 32, GPA 3.9, top 5%). The calculator yields a President’s Scholarship valued at $14,000, leaving a net remaining cost of $26,170, about the same as the total cost for an in-state student. Using the same stats for an in-state student yields a President’s Scholarship valued at $10,000, leaving a net remaining cost of $14, 340.

Entering mean scores and GPAs for Barrett students (ACT 29, 3.79, top 12%) yields an OOS award of a Provost’s Scholarship valued at $13,000, with a net remaining cost of $27,170, about the same as the total cost for an in-state student. Entering the same scores for an in-state student yields a Provost’s Scholarship valued at $8,000, leaving a net remaining cost of $16,340.

Entering an ACT of 24, GPA of 3.50, class standing top 25% yields an in-state Dean’s Scholarship valued at $6,000. The same scores for OOS yield a Dean’s Scholarship of $12,500, and a remaining net cost of $27,670.

For purposes of comparison, we estimate that in-state National Merit Scholars who receive no non-merit aid or additional merit aid, end up with a net in-state cost of about $12,000. OOS National Merit Scholars with no aid outside the NMS award have a net remaining cost of about $14,400 a year. The OOS NMS award leaves a net cost roughly equivalent to that of the President’s Scholarship for in-state students.