Thoughts on NY Times Letters about Honors Colleges

Honors News: August 25, 2015

Below are excerpts from two letters to the editor published by the New York Times in response to Frank Bruni’s positive August 9 column about honors colleges and programs. Again, our thanks to Mr. Bruni for his kind remarks about A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs and for his support of honors colleges and programs as a strong option for talented students. Our comments follow both excerpts.

To the Editor:

“Frank Bruni argues correctly that honors colleges at many public universities give students the chance to get a superb education at a moderate price (“A Prudent College Path,” column, Aug. 9). But he might have expanded his argument further in addressing the value of honors colleges as they have evolved in recent years at private as well as public universities.

“Contrary to the general belief that an honors college is an elitist program for only the best students, many honors colleges now offer an array of intellectual and cultural resources to all students who choose to take advantage of them…

“Some of our programs are open only to the highest-achieving students, but others — involving research, fellowship mentoring and interdisciplinary coursework — are open to all. These programs allow students to receive a wide-ranging liberal arts education while still completing a focused major and preparing for the workplace or graduate school.”

PAULA MARANTZ COHEN
Dean, Pennoni Honors College
Drexel University
Philadelphia

To the Editor:

“Honors programs for a select few at public universities institutionalize blatant academic elitism and hypocrisy rather than diminish them. All college courses should be ‘honors courses,’ demanding and providing rigorous academic and intellectual experiences for everyone who attends college…

“Rather than casting 80 percent of the student body overboard into an intellectually mediocre classroom environment, reel back these students so that they, too, can experience what the university considers the best for the best.”

PHIL AVILLO
York, Pa.
The writer is emeritus professor of history at York College of Pennsylvania.

Responses:

Dean Cohen is correct in saying that many honors colleges and programs in private universities such as Drexel are essential for giving talented students an opportunity to participate in honors-specific courses and experiences, while also providing access to undergraduate research, fellowship mentoring, and even access to some honors classes.

The same is true of honors programs in public universities. An outstanding example is the University of Georgia Honors Program, which oversees the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO), a highly effective vehicle for promoting research excellence for all undergraduates, not just honors students. It is no coincidence that UGA, mainly through its honors program and research emphasis, is one of the national leaders in producing Goldwater Scholars. These outstanding undergraduates in the STEM disciplines are often selected later on for prestigious postgraduate scholarships.

Professor Avillo suggests that honors colleges and programs are guilty of “blatant elitism” and take resources away from the overall student population. This is a familiar attack on honors programs, and of course he is correct in saying that honors programs require extra university resources to provide smaller class sections for honors students, honors residence halls, and other special programs. And in some cases, honors students may be considered “elite” in a negative way. The question is: are these extra efforts justifiable?

(Here’s a great article on our site by Dean Christian Brady of Penn State’s renowned Schreyer Honors College. Dean Brady describes how honors programs can become more egalitarian and benefit the whole university.)

It is our view that the two main justifications for honors colleges and programs:

1. Most public and private honors programs at major universities require applicants to have very strong high school gpa’s along with standardized test scores in the top 8-9% nationwide. Our research suggests that in the current battle among colleges to enhance their selectivity profiles, many of these bright students are not finding places in the most elite private institutions.

In order for these students to find a learning environment that, in some ways, offers classes and other experiences that resemble those in elite colleges. Without the thousands of slots for these students in both public and private honors programs, the students would likely succeed anyway–but would they be challenged, or find a group with similar interests as freshmen, or go on to the best graduate and professional schools?

2. If you are one of the students described above and find that your dream private college has rejected you for whatever mystical reason, would you want to travel hundreds or thousands of miles and pay higher tuition to find a college that will offer you the challenges and opportunities you need, indeed deserve based on your qualifications? If given the right option, would you stay in your home state, or at least nearby?

Most students would say yes. And, sometimes, their state legislatures would like for them to stay in-state in order to avoid the “brain drain” that occurs when such students cannot find the type of education they desire in their home state. The fact is that no state right now, and probably in the foreseeable future, can magically create a UC Berkeley, Michigan, UCLA, UVA, UNC Chapel Hill, or a William & Mary. Or a UW Madison, Washington, UT Austin, or Illinois. But a state can, with additional support from donors, build honors colleges and programs.

Honors News is a regular (not always daily) update, in brief, of recent news from honors colleges/programs and from the world of higher ed. Occasionally, a bit of opinion enters the discussion. These brief posts are by John Willingham, unless otherwise noted.

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Once Again, The New Republic Weighs in on the Ivies, and Here’s our Response

Once again, The New Republic  is featuring an article that discusses the pros and cons of an Ivy League education.  This time, the article comes in the form of a review of New York Times columnist Frank Bruni’s new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.

In the TNR review, called “It Doesn’t Matter if Your Kid Doesn’t Get into Harvard,” author Nick Romeo claims that Bruni is too focused on the ability of college grads from non-Ivy institutions to achieve material success on a par with Ivy grads.

“He’s not asking his readers to examine a cultural obsession with success, so much as assuring them that they can still impress others without attending highly selective undergraduate institutions,” Romeo writes. “Just look at all the people who run huge companies or work at prestigious consulting or law firms, he says. Not all of them went to Ivy League schools! There are ‘myriad routes to a corner office,’ as he puts it. He never seriously considers the possibility that college might shape students into adults who are not interested in a corner office.”

Romeo prefers the earlier challenge to Ivy education published in TNR: William Deresiewicz’s now famous article “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” which appeared on July 21, 2014, and has now been “shared” more than 200,000 times.  Deresiewwicz’s article argues that many less elite schools, such as public flagships, allow bright students more latitude to discover themselves in the midst of fellow students who are not all driven or overly-focused on channeling their lives toward one thing: an Ivy admission.

The fact is that college at its best is not an either/or proposition that pits learning for its own sake against training for a career.  In almost every college in the nation there are at least three broad types of students–those who are in alive with self-discovery and intellectual excitement, those who want to get out in a hurry and find a high-paying job, and many others who are open to intellectual expansion but are acutely aware that the “real world” awaits.

The subtitle of Bruni’s  book is “An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.”  But Nick Romeo argues that what Bruni describes “is not a bracing cure; it’s a soothing balm for upper-middle class parents whose children do not quite manage to scale the highest peaks of prestige.”

We see Bruni’s book as less an antidote than a balancing argument to the one proposed by Deresiewicz.  While many smart “kids” do and should value intellectual stimulation, they and their parents need to be practical as well.  If Bruni over-emphasizes the “antidote” of achieving career success equivalent to that of Ivy grads without attending an Ivy school, his message is one that parents and prospective students need to hear.

As we have noted many times, there are far more bright students than there are places at Ivy institutions, and these bright students should be able to find, and should know that they can find, both intellectual and career equivalence at colleges outside the Ivy League, including public honors colleges and programs.

It is well known that admission to any highly selective college can be capricious, subjective, and even approach the formulaic.  Ivy colleges are wonderful, in most cases, for students who are both brilliant and fortunate.   Students who are “merely” brilliant at one brief point of their lives need to know that the rest of their lives can be as fulfilling in all ways as the lives of their more fortunate counterparts.