Editor’s Note: Thanks to honors Deans and Directors from across the country, we received more data than ever before in 2016. Most of the data appear in our new book, but periodically we will report on other discoveries that we did not have time to include.
We have written about honors classes several times, having reported on average class sizes and the various types of honors class sections–honors seminars, honors-only classes in the disciplines, mixed honors classes (honors and non-honors students), and contract sections, in which honors students do extra work in a regular class for honors credit.
Before presenting data that show the percentage of class work honors students do in the various class types, here is a brief recap on the average class sizes of honors sections, based on actual, detailed data from 50 major honors programs:
Honors-only class section size= 19.0 students
Mixed sections for honors credit= 51.1 students
Contract sections for honors credit= 60.1 students
OVERALL average size of class sections for honors credit= 26.3 students
But now for the additional, unpublished data.
Since class sizes vary significantly according to the type of class section, here is a summary of the percentage of classroom time that honors students spend in the different section types:
In 22 of the 50 programs we rated, all honors credit sections were “honors-only” sections (no mixed or contract sections).
Across all 50 programs, 83.1% of enrollment time was in honors-only sections.
13.6% of enrollment time was in mixed sections that included both honors and non-honors students. Many of these sections had separate honors-only breakout or lab components.
The remaining 5.1% of enrollment time was in contract sections, in which students in regular classes had to complete extra work for honors credit.
Honors-only classes may be seminars that are generally interdisciplinary, or more discipline-specific classes.
Our findings show that 45.8% of honors-only classes are seminars are interdisciplinary sections, which are typically offered through the honors college or program itself.
The remaining 54.2% of honors-only classes are centered on the academic disciplines, many offered directly by the academic departments.
After three months of analyzing data, we are almost at the point of rating at least 50 honors programs, writing their profiles, and adding another 10 or so summary reviews (unrated).
What I can say now is that there will be some significant changes–and some surprises. We are running behind schedule, but I still hope for publication by late September.
Here’s why. The 2014 edition was a great improvement over the 2012 book. In 2012, I was so focused on the importance of honors curriculum and completion requirements, along with the glitz of prestigious scholarships (Rhodes, Marshall, Goldwater, etc.) that the first effort failed to drill deeply into the complexities of honors programs.
The 2014 edition moved the ball forward–about halfway downfield, or more–because I was able to obtain more information from honors deans and directors. I also studied class section data online and derived a lot of useful information about honors-only classes, including average class sizes and a general idea of the disciplines offered.
For the 2016 edition, I knew going in that I needed far more detailed information from the programs themselves to develop precise measures for all class sections (including mixed and contract sections). Fortunately, I have been working with that much better information. The result is that instead of listing the number of honors classes in, say, math, the 2016 edition will report how many sections there are in relation to the total number of honors students.
This approach will have a dramatic impact in some cases. For example, say that Program A has 4 honors math sections might have looked good in the 2014 edition; but if Program A has 1400 enrolled honors students, 4 sections do not look very strong.
Another difference will be in the rating for honors class size. In 2014, the most accurate ratings were for honors-only class sizes. But the fact is that many programs offer much of their honors credit via mixed and contract sections. Accurately measuring the class sizes for these sections is extremely difficult when using only the online data. Indeed, there is no section information about contract sections online. Approximately 60 percent of programs allow credit for honors contracts (basically, doing extra work in a regular section for honors credit). A few have use contracts extensively. The new edition will list the average size of contract and mixed sections (honors and non-honors students in the same class).
Finally, another major difference that will have an impact in 2016 is that the rating for honors housing will have a new dimension: one-third of the rating will now be based on the availability of housing space, in addition to the amenities and dorm layout.
In an earlier post, Honors College, Honors Program: What’s the Difference, we wrote about the sometimes minor differences between honors colleges and honors programs, while noting that, in general, honors colleges tend to have more structure, somewhat smaller classes, more staff support, and more state of the art residence halls.
In that post, the focus was on stats and structural differences. In this post, we want to highlight another reason that several flagship institutions have, and will continue to have, honors programs rather than honors colleges. Undoubtedly, the current trend in higher ed is to develop new honors colleges or to integrate existing honors programs into a separate honors college. This can lead to the perception that honors colleges are inherently better, more advanced, or more in tune with the need to create centers of excellence in public universities.
In the case of most of the public universities with an average U.S. News ranking of 70 or higher, however, the overwhelming preference is to offer an honors program–or programs–rather than establish a separate honors college within the universities. It is no coincidence that these schools, most notably Michigan, UCLA, UNC Chapel Hill, Virginia, Illinois, UW Madison, Washington, UT Austin, and Ohio State have very strong overall academic reputations andhigh faculty rankings across all major disciplines. (UC Berkeley and William and Mary do not have any university-wide honors programs at all.)
When greater selectivity is combined with outstanding academic reputation and stellar faculty, students with Ivy-ish ambitions can say, with confidence, that the smaller communities and classes created by the honors programs at these schools are the final steps that bring them to substantive equivalence with elite private universities. The academic rep is present, and the faculty is strong even in non-honors classes. There is no real need to establish a separate, often larger honors college in order to concentrate the academic resources there, because those resources are university-wide.
There are exceptions, of course. When highly-ranked public universities receive generous private endowments or donations to establish honors colleges, they have done so. The Schreyer Honors College at Penn State is an outstanding example. The Purdue Honors College is another that has benefited greatly from private donations.
The University of Maryland Honors College is another exception. Though not named for wealthy benefactors, the college was created almost half a century ago, in 1966, making it one of the oldest and most respected honors colleges in the nation.
Private endowments can also fund large honors colleges within flagships that are not rated among the top 60 public universities, making those honors colleges so notable that they often compete with public and private elites. Examples include ASU’s Barrett Honors College, the University of South Carolina Honors College, Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon, and the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at Ole Miss.
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.
Other leading honors colleges and programs involve professors in the honors advising process, sometimes as co-advisors with full-time honors staff professionals. At Clark Honors College (CHC) at the University of Oregon, honors advising is one of the responsibilities of about two dozen resident CHC faculty, many of whom have offices in Chapman Hall, home of the college.
Now, in addition to resident faculty advisors, the college has a Director of Undergraduate Advising, Elizabeth Raisanen, Ph.D. Dr. Raisanen works as a liaison with academic departments and their advisors, coordinates the peer advisors from the college, plans programming for the Global Scholars Hall, and centralizes information about prestigious scholarships, fellowships, and internships.
Global Scholars Hall
All of this adds up to a lot of individual attention for CHC students.
“The Global Scholars Hall is home to students in the Robert D. Clark Honors College who can attend lectures, discussions, film screenings, and academic advising offered right where they live. Students in the five language immersive communities in Spanish, German, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and French share a section of rooms with other people studying the same language so that they can become more fluent through everyday communication,” according to the university.
“Whether chatting in German while eating lunch in the Fresh Market cafe or learning to make sushi in the demonstration kitchen, students in these programs will create and participate in a global academic experience.”
The CHC is a “small liberal arts college of approximately 800 students within a renowned research university. The Clark Honors College features small classes and close interaction between students and faculty. It emphasizes interdisciplinary scholarship and independent research in a tight-knit, dynamic community of students and faculty,” according to the CHC.
“The Clark Honors College is made up of students from every department and school at the University of Oregon—from architects and musicians to biology and business majors—with classes designed to foster intense and creative exchange among different approaches and viewpoints. This diversity of viewpoints is one of our greatest strengths. The CHC offers a broad, innovative, and rigorous curriculum in the arts and sciences, fulfilling all University of Oregon general education requirements.”
Some honors classes meet in Chapman Hall; the average class size for sections offered directly by the CHC is 16.9 students.
Classroom in Chapman Hall, before quarter begins
The Hall is undergoing renovations now, and will feature additional classroom space.
Admission is competitive. For Fall 2014, the median SAT score was 1320, and the median high school GPA was 3.91 on a 4.0 scale. The honors admission director is Paula Braswell. Editor’s note: Paula was our genial and knowledgeable “tour guide” during a recent visit to the CHC.
Deresiewicz believes that higher education has entered “the age of neoliberalism. Call it Reaganism or Thatcherism, economism or market fundamentalism, neoliberalism is an ideology that reduces all values to money values. The worth of a thing is the price of the thing. The worth of a person is the wealth of the person. Neoliberalism tells you that you are valuable exclusively in terms of your activity in the marketplace — in Wordsworth’s phrase, your getting and spending.”
Citing New York Times columnist David Brooks, Deresiewicz notes that higher education used to have, or should have, “three potential purposes: the commercial (preparing to start a career), the cognitive (learning stuff, or better, learning how to think), and the moral (the purpose that is so mysterious to Pinker and his ilk). ‘Moral,’ here, does not mean learning right from wrong. It means developing the ability to make autonomous choices — to determine your own beliefs, independent of parents, peers, and society. To live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.”
Now, he argues, “Only the commercial purpose now survives as a recognized value. Even the cognitive purpose, which one would think should be the center of a college education, is tolerated only insofar as it contributes to the commercial.” The result, according to Deresiewicz, is that universities ostensibly dedicated to the development of deep critical thinking skills are increasingly functioning as “parallel colleges,” where the true focus is on internships, institutes, entrepreneurship, and vocational disciplines.
From “Honors Education: A Parallel College?”, by Joel Hunter, Ph.D.
Among the disputed points, Dereciewicz argues that the development of a “parallel curriculum” and “parallel college” is symptomatic of higher education’s abandoning its traditional mission to develop in its students “the ability to think and live” for both personal and public enrichment, and instead reorganizing the function of education around neoliberal aims and purposes. I described in my earlier post why I think this analysis is flawed. In this addendum, I will focus on one example of why we should be hopeful rather than alarmed about some of these “parallel” initiatives: the growth in numbers of and accessibility to public Honors programs and colleges.
Honors programs arose in the 1920s and 30s as “Great Books” programs in private colleges. These programs were developed by a group of academics who sought to (re)introduce the liberal arts tradition as the center of American higher education, thus broadening what they viewed as a too-narrow specialization that had emerged in response to the growing economy and culture of industrial scale manufacturing in the late nineteenth century. The growth of the early Honors programs stalled during World War II, the immediate post-war period, and during the Korean War. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union spurred unprecedented federal investment in higher education and reinvigorated the growth of Honors programs.
Honors colleges are an even more recent phenomenon. According to the National Collegiate Honors Council NCHC), a survey of their member institutions showed that of those responding, 60 percent of Honors colleges had been established since 1994. And 80 percent of those had evolved from an earlier Honors program. As of May 2015, there were nearly 200 Honors programs and colleges in the U.S. (NCHC guide). The period of this historical development coincides with the very period Deresiewicz claims that neoliberal values appear triumphant. If he were right that higher education has been debased to a mere instrumental good since the 1960s, the rise and growth of these humanistic, interdisciplinary, “Great Ideas” and “Great Books” programs should not have occurred over that same period. Honors programs and colleges express their mission in the very terms that Deresiewicz thinks has all but disappeared in the age of Reagan, Walker, “Third Way” DLC Democrats, and Obama: learning how to think critically and independently, developing an individual’s personal and intellectual welfare, and creating self-governing citizens with a sense of social responsibility, capable of pursuing the common good and sustaining a democratic society.
Thriving Honors education at public institutions all over the country – Macaulay at City University of New York, Western Kentucky University, the University of Alabama, the University of Florida, Michigan State University, the University of Cincinnati, UCLA, and the University of Arizona – constitutes a substantial counterexample to Deresiewicz’s dire view of the current and future states of liberal arts education.
[Quoting Ted Humphrey, founding Dean, ASU Barrett Honors College]: “For a number of complex reasons, I came to think of it in terms of the habits of mind we were engendering by emphasizing the importance of the Great Books tradition. This perspective makes the reason for focusing on the Great Books the development of specific intellectual dispositions, most importantly, the abilities to read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience analytically and disinterestedly. Further, the Great Books are models of good and effective writing. Although the Great Books provide invaluable insight into human nature and values, into the reasons for and goals of social existence, they are yet more valuable as examples of those habits of mind that give rise to humanity’s self-understanding and attempts to progress to a more fulfilled state. Thus, it seems to me, honors education is better served by taking the Great Books as paradigms of certain habits of mind than as the particular repositories of human wisdom that all must master.”
If a public institution of higher education is committed to serving highly qualified students able to undertake rigorous course work, then the challenge becomes organizing the college under an inclusive conception of honors education.
This task consists of three parts: first, to attract and bring together identifiable cohorts of able and ambitious students who commit themselves to the project of becoming educated members of a democratic society; second, to help them understand that they are pursuing an education for life, citizenship, and career, in that order; and third, to create a set of curricular and co-curricular opportunities that can provide such an education, that is, to organize the resources of the university for those students’ benefit. In sum, the honors dean’s job is to provide the campus with cohorts of superb students and to make sure the campus opens its resources to them.
Given that this precise effort has been duplicated in dozens and now hundreds of public colleges and universities, a handful of which I listed above, we may well ask how Deresiewicz overlooked the phenomenon of Honors education in his article. For it seems to embody the very values he applauds as a “real” education, a vanguard against neoliberal values and ideology. Perhaps Honors education is insufficiently committed to inclusiveness or egalitarian values insofar as it is confined to a particular population in the university, and for whom the university establishes a “parallel college.” Is Honors education elitist?
The answer is, “Could be.” Honors programs and colleges are, by their very nature, selective. They exist in part to enable the academically bright young adults to flourish in a curriculum that often includes Socratic seminars, enrichment opportunities in their disciplinary courses, and access to independent study and projects with faculty eager to engage in “the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds.” My experience has been that many Honors students “will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way” and “care deeply about thinking and learning,” just like their most dedicated faculty.
Does the selective admissions process for Honors programs and colleges institutionalize systemic elitism? Do such programs create an academic upper class, diverting resources and opportunities away from the lower tier underclass, a 99% left outside the gates of the Honors community? This is a serious concern, especially for public institutions of higher education, who are commissioned to serve all of the citizens of a state and contribute to the commonweal. Can the danger of elitism and exclusivity be avoided or overcome? Let’s consider this objection.
An elite enjoys privileges difficult or impossible to obtain by the general population. Having different access to advantages and resources than the masses, elites live and work on an uneven playing field. At a public college or university, if funding and resources are unequally transferred to special cohorts or schools, that appears to be fundamentally at odds with the mission of public institution that exists to serve the public good rather than the private good of particular individuals. The benefits of the education underwritten by the citizens of a state are not (or should not be) prioritized by the good that is served to individuals, but to the common good. Since Honors education is organized in such a way as to benefit a small percentage of the student population, it seems that such programs are illegitimate and inconsistent with public supported higher education.
This objection demands an answer. Is it legitimate to divert revenue obtained from one large group of students to benefit a smaller group of students? Yes, sometimes this disproportionate allocation is a legitimate response to serve the overall public good. Funding diversions are recognized and routinely practiced for students with documented disabilities and students for whom English is not their first language. Disability resource centers and intensive English language programs exist to make a college education attainable for all citizens, including those with special needs. Additional services, such as tutoring and accommodations for attending and participating in amateur sports, are provided for athletes. If institutions of public education are obligated to support each individual’s need to fully realize their potential, then differential support from the public treasury is necessary. Are Honors students one of those populations with special needs? Yes, I believe so, and for two reasons.
Honors students are comparable to athletes. Competitive amateur sports in college have been recognized for over one hundred years as a means for enabling able and ambitious students to pursue their physical development, which, unless we take a disembodied view of the student, is a legitimate component of their full potential. Students admitted into Honors programs are the academic athletes of the college or university. If sport athletes are a population of students who require support to meet their special needs, then Honors students are as well. It is clearly a legitimate special allocation of resources to develop “appropriately conceived and rigorous course work for able and ambitious students.” If the analogy with athletes holds, then able and ambitious students are one of the university’s diverse, special needs populations.
The second reason Honors students are a group with special needs in a public institution of higher education is related to the first. The reason institutions of public education are obligated by charter or institutional values to support each individual’s need to fully realize their potential is bound up with the point of education itself. Education refines the individual, nurtures creativity, and contributes to the overall commonweal of the state by the general effect of conviviality encouraged within the institution’s society. By these means public education equips students to contribute more fully and richly to the economic and cultural welfare of civil society. If Honors students are not provided with an appropriate level of course work and academic challenge, the public would be impeding its own economic and cultural development by handicapping some of its brightest citizens from achieving their full potential. Whatever private benefits accrue to students provided with accommodations, and the student with a documented disability, the athlete, and the Honors student all surely do, states have long recognized that legitimate justification for reallocating resources to meet these students’ special needs is the important contribution they make to the public good.
Contrary to Deresiewicz’s claim, public Honors education is not a parallel curriculum developed by students for careerist aims or institutions for neoliberal aims. The values underpinning Honors programs are not “encased in neoliberal assumptions,” based on meritocracy, or “generating a caste system.” On the contrary, my own experience, and the experience of thousands of faculty members who teach Honors students speak to the very principle that Deresiewicz thinks has all but disappeared: the “counterbalancing institutions” that advance a set of values in deep tension with, and at important points in opposition to, neoliberalism. He asks “What is to be done?” For starters:
1. Develop and encourage Honors education at all public colleges and universities, including community colleges.
2. Establish broad-based faculty support for Honors education, particularly in institutions with strong professional and technical colleges.
3. Ensure equal access to Honors education by not levying fees or required student expenses over and above those already assessed by the broader institution.
Deresiewicz says that the fundamental problem with efforts to push back against neoliberal education “is that we no longer believe in public solutions.” He says “[w]e only believe in market solutions, or at least private-sector solutions.” I do not know who this “we” is, because when I consider the growing movement of public Honors education, I see a strong commitment to a public solution. It may not solve the problems in private higher education, but the residential Honors college developed in public universities has been exported and adapted to some of the most prestigious of private institutions as well. “Real” education, contrary to Deresiesicz’s false alarm, is readily available to all students in this country, in spite of social and political forces that may wish to suppress it.
It is close to a given that whenever the subject of public university honors programs receives widespread attention in the media, many comments from readers point to the alleged unfairness–the “elitism”–of such programs. Some readers, understandably, lament the disproportionate allocation of resources to a relatively small number of students, arguing that the resources should benefit all students.
First, as to the basic charge of elitism, the term clearly applies if it is used to characterize the official membership of highly qualified students in honors colleges and programs. In general, they are among the top 5-10 percent of the entire student body, based on high school gpa’s and standardized test scores.
Second, it is true that specific components of honors programs, especially honors “benefits,” serve to set honors students apart from the overall student body. Prominent among these benefits are special honors dorms and one form or another of priority registration for honors students. (But some honors programs, most notably those at Illinois and UW Madison, do not provide separate housing because of a conscious effort to avoid charges of elitism.)
Third, all honors programs offer smaller class sections to their students, especially during the first and second years of study. In order to provide these sections, academic departments must sacrifice “production” ratios in the interest of staffing these smaller classes.
If Professor A normally teaches three sections of microeconomics, each with an enrollment of 100, and then replaces one of these with an honors section of 20 students, the production ratios of both Professor A and the econ department are a little less impressive in the provost’s eyes. The emphasis on “productivity” in public universities has become a sort of mantra in the eyes of many critics of state universities.
After conceding the above, the justification of special treatment actually depends on (1) whether public honors programs yield sufficient benefit to the whole university to warrant the emphasis they receive; (2) whether their target audience–honors students–really deserves special support, as do other groups (athletes, under-represented ethnic and geographical groups, low-income students, first-generation students, students requiring remedial classes); (3) whether the state and region benefit enough from the continuing presence of honors students; and (4) whether honors programs fill a need by providing slots for high-achieving students, in the absence of a sufficient number of places at, well, elite colleges.
The fact is, many honors colleges and programs allow motivated and proven non-honors students to take honors classes. As Penn State Schreyer Dean Christian Brady wrote in a recent article on this site, honors can be a “gateway” to transfer and non-honors students who find, after their first year or two in college, that they want to embrace greater challenges.
Dr. Jeffrey Chamberlain, Director of the Frederik Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, agrees with Dean Brady at Schreyer that “Honors raises the game for the whole university. I am told repeatedly how good it is to have Honors students in non-Honors classes (and Honors students never take all of their classes in Honors). Furthermore, Honors students help non-Honors students in every imaginable way—Honors students are math and science tutors, writing consultants, even RAs, so they contribute to student success across the board.” And, by the way, at a savings to the university.
Some states, such as South Carolina and Alabama, look to honors colleges to attract bright students to the state–and to keep such students from leaving the state to attend college. Avoiding a brain drain from a state or a region is, in its own way, an effort to maintain equity and to support and sustain the state’s economy.
Finally, what should a student do if there is a shortage of places at highly selective colleges and the student has the same credentials as those who are lucky enough to enter the selective schools? We have shown that, despite what some observers claim, there really are not enough places in public and private colleges for all the brightest students in this nation. Is it not fair–equitable, even–to provide places in public honors 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.
Beginning this fall, 530 first-year students will begin their honors experience in the brand new, state-of-the art Honors College Living/Learning Community (LLC). The facility is also the administrative home of the Honors College and provides classroom and conference space as well.
Dean Matt Matsuda tells us that “our new living/learning facility houses all first-year students in the Honors College as well as our administrative and advising offices, six seminar rooms, plentiful lounge and study areas for programming, and three live-in faculty apartments.”
Arts and Sciences and other honors programs at Rutgers will continue operations on various Rutgers-New Brunswick campuses, but freshman entrants from now on will share the first-year residential experience at the new LLC, a fact that provides cohesion, mentoring, and lots of mutual reinforcement for the new students.
The Honors LLC is located in the heart of the College Avenue Campus, the oldest of the five New Brunswick campuses and site of the original university. The College Avenue Campus is home to the Student Union, Health Center, the school of Arts and Sciences, and many academic departments.
At at time when as many as 75 percent of applicants to the most elite colleges are capable of succeeding at those schools–while only 5-10 percent are accepted–public honors programs are an increasingly important option. (Arguments that as many of 80 percent of high achieving students can find a place in elite colleges are extremely suspect. Please see Is It True That 80% of Elite Students Are Accepted by Elite Colleges?)
As an honors student in high school, Amanda Fraticelli loved the atmosphere of being surrounded by top students, she said.
Fraticelli, of Toms River, said she was motivated by the way students challenged one another to do better academically. While some of her high school friends went to Ivy League universities and Fraticelli picked Rutgers University, the incoming freshman doesn’t expect that challenging atmosphere to change too much.
“I like knowing that everyone else (here) cares as much as I do,” Fraticelli said as she moved into her dorm room on Thursday.
In Fraticelli’s residence hall, some students might care even more.
Thursday marked the official opening of The Rutgers-New Brunswick Honors College, an $84.8 million, 170,000 square foot complex where the best and brightest of New Jersey’s state university will live alongside some school faculty and the academic dean.
All 530 honors college stdents, with an average SAT score more than 600 points higher than the state average [of 1526], moved into the building that also houses the offices of their academic advisors and honors college administrators.
“It’s a transformational moment in terms of honors education here,” said Paul Gilmore, the honors college’s administrative dean. “It’s a way that we are making the state, the region, the nation aware of what an incredible resource Rutgers is.”
Rutgers is one of dozens of state universities nationwide investing in honors colleges as a way to compete with elite colleges to attract the state’s brightest students. The honors programs often offer upgraded housing, smaller classes and other perks to draw in top undergraduates.
In recent years, Rutgers has stepped up its efforts to recruit high-achieving students, starting a new scholarship program for applicants with top SAT scores and high school grade point averages. The efforts come as New Jersey remains one of the country’s largest exporters of college students — sending more freshmen to out-of-state colleges than most other states in the nation.
Rutgers has long had honors programs for students from certain campuses or schools. But the new honors college for the first time brings together the top students of all academic majors under one roof.
For some students, earning a spot in the honors college is simply a perk. They had planned to attend Rutgers anyway but like the idea of being surrounded by students with similar academic goals, they said.
The fact that the honors college is the newest residence hall on the College Avenue campus made the decision easier students said.
The double rooms come with the same amenities as other on-campus housing, plus carpeted floors and air conditioning. Some rooms at the end of the hall have a view of the Raritan River.
Unlike the large, group-style bathrooms in more traditional college dormitories, the honors college has smaller bathrooms throughout each floor.
On the ground floor, seminar rooms will host some of the first-year classes. An indoor-outdoor fireplace anchors a lounge and patio space.
Students have to pay slightly more to live in the honors college housing, which is only for freshmen, but they are also allowed to stay in their rooms over school breaks.
For parents, that fact that students will be living in a building with in-house academic advisors is a relief, they said.
“It gives us a better feel for how she is going to survive her first year,” said Fernando Fraticelli, Amanda’s father.
Administrators hope students not only survive but help make the honors college a showcase for the university, Gilmore said. Rutgers sees the program as a recruiting tool that will help attract the best student from New Jersey and beyond, he said.
SaraAnn Stanway, an Ocean Township High School graduate who scored a 2270 out of 2400 on the SAT, said she understood the honors college is beneficial both for the students and for Rutgers.
“It’s exciting that Rutgers made it for us, but what makes it ever better is that we get to make it for Rutgers,” Stanway said. “We have the opportunity to make the honors college prestigious and extraordinary, and I can’t wait to be part of it.”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
The writer is emeritus professor of history at York College of Pennsylvania.
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?
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.