Inside Honors: Class Sizes, Classes by Discipline, Sections Per Student

By John Willingham, Editor

I thought it was time to raise my head from the ocean of data I am crunching for the 2016 edition of our Review.

Since we have much more–and much better–data this time around, the book itself will be even more data-driven than its predecessors. We will still have narrative profiles for each program/honors college under review, but it’s likely that within each narrative there will be a table that summarizes our findings.

Here is some of what readers will see in the new edition:

Class Sizes–Instead of reporting only the average class size for honors-only classes, we will show, in addition to honors-only class sizes, the average class sizes for mixed sections (classes with honors credit but including some or many non-honors students), and even the class sizes for honors contract sections (regular classes in which honors students do extra work for honors credit). What I can say at this point is that the total class size metric will be based on a combination of the above. This change alone could result is some significant changes in our ratings.

Contract Sections–In the past, we have focused on regular honors sections, and we are somewhat tardy in giving some attention to a fairly widespread practice in honors education: contract sections. These are sometimes called honors options, honors enhancements, etc. As noted above, these sections generally feature an agreement between the honors student and instructor (as approved by honors staff) according to which the student does extra work to earn honors credit. In a few programs, honors contracts may account for more than 30% of the total honors class enrollment in a given term. The 2016 edition will present views on the relative value of these types of classes. There are many pros, as well as some cons. Stay tuned.

Course Offerings, by Academic Department–In the 2014 edition, we tried to give readers an idea of the general range and type of honors classes offered by each honors college or program. Although we did approximate estimates of honors classes by academic discipline, I thought that that aspect of the 2014 ratings was surely the most subjective. This time around, the number of classes by discipline will be strictly quantified so our readers can know how many honors sections are available, and in a ratio to total honors participants.

Courses in “Key” Disciplines–It goes without saying that one person’s choice of “key” academic disciplines will probably not be the same as another person’s choice. What we plan to do is emphasize the classes in disciplines that we believe should be offered by honors programs, regardless of how popular the discipline might be as a major. For example, relatively few college students major in philosophy and many students (and parents) might not place much “value” on courses in that discipline. But honors students are supposed to be different–more motivated, more curious, more open, and more capable of in-depth critical thinking. From the more obviously practical perspective, we also place speech and communications classes in the key group. (One reason we favor small classes for honors students is that those classes typically require students to develop argumentation and group communication skills.)

Other “key” disciplines that we will quantify are biology; business and related disciplines; chemistry; computer science and related disciplines; economics; English; engineering; history; math; physics; political science; psychology; and anthropology/sociology.

So, if you want to know how many honors chemistry sections a program offers, or how many of those relatively scarce honors polysci, econ, or physics sections are available, we will tell you how each program stacks up.

Reformers, Distance learning, and the Future of Honors Education

Recently, President Obama called for a series of reforms directed at reducing the cost of tuition at the nation’s universities. Most public institutions are already operating with minimal state support, and these latest demands to cut costs and improve efficiencies, are, one hopes, an attempt by the president to take over the reform agenda from those who use it as part of a larger plan to reduce the role of government in all areas of life.

Some members of this alleged reform effort also champion private, for-profit online colleges as an effective means to make college education more available and affordable, despite the low graduation rates and high student loan burdens that are frequently associated with these institutions.

Of course these schools rely almost entirely on distance learning. Whether or not they are effective, overall, as educational tools, rather than as inexpensive delivery systems, is a matter of debate. But for those whose only bottom line is the one with dollar signs, distance learning will always be appealing.

The president’s proposal gives a strong nod to the role of technology in reducing costs:

“Through cost-saving measures like redesigning courses and making better use of education technology,” the president argued, “institutions can keep costs down to provide greater affordability for students.”

So how will the reforms affect honors education, especially the emphasis on distance education? It is possible to see at least three scenarios:

(1) public research institutions could use distance learning and even campus online courses to lower the cost of education for most students, thereby allowing the universities to maintain honors programs as they are, with small, personal classes and the best professors; or

(2) honors programs will have to ride the technology wave and include online learning to the same extent as the university as a whole; or

(3) An approach that includes somewhat more online instruction but retains the essential, more personal quality of an honors education will generally prevail.

Some universities, notably the University of Central Arkansas and the University of Maine at Augusta, already use distance learning in honors education, with good results. Many others require honors students to develop digital portfolios that involve the students in a process of reflection; this process not only allows students to collect and synthesize what they have learned but also to discover new connections along the way.

Even so, too much emphasis on digital learning will change the essential nature of the public honors hybrid. The combination of high-level research and a liberal-arts atmosphere would surely suffer if direct personal contact became significantly less frequent.