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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Do Elite Colleges Really Offer Better Courses? Probably Yes, in Some Ways

Is it actually worth it, in terms of quality classroom learning, to land a place at an elite college or university? This is a question that many families with highly-talented students ask themselves. If their answer is yes, the result is likely to be a concerted, frenzied effort to mold the students in a way that gives them at least a modest chance of admission to such schools. (Of course, for better or worse, the question is often framed as “Is it worth it, in terms of career success, to land a place…”).

Regarding the differences in the quality of classes among all levels of institutions, new research provides some insights. The researchers lean toward minimizing the relationship between academic prestige and quality of instruction–but it appears that some of their own research suggests just the opposite.

In an article titled Are Elite College Courses Better?, Doug Lederman, editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, provides an excellent, mostly neutral summary of the recent research that suggests course quality in a relatively broad range of institutions does not vary as much as the prestige of a given school might suggest.

“Researchers at Teachers College of Columbia University and at Yeshiva University… believe they are developing a legitimate way to compare the educational quality of courses across institutions,” Lederman writes, “and their initial analysis, they say, ‘raises questions about the value of higher-prestige institutions in terms of their teaching quality.'”

The researchers suggest that the drive to enhance prestige based on rankings and selectivity have led to “signaling”–branding, perceptions–that are increasingly divorced from the actual quality of classroom instruction. The laudable aim of the researchers is to turn the conversation away from college rankings and the metrics that drive them, and toward measurements of effective, challenging instruction.

Trained faculty observers visited nine colleges and 600 classes. Three of the nine had high prestige; two had minimum prestige; and four had low prestige. The schools were both public and private, with differing research and teaching emphases. We should note that there was no list of which schools were in each category, so we do not know exactly how the researchers defined “elite.” It appears likely, however, that many leading public research universities would be considered elite.

“Teaching quality was defined as instruction that displayed the instructor’s subject matter knowledge, drew out students’ prior knowledge and prodded students to wrestle with new ideas, while academic rigor was judged on the ‘cognitive complexity’ and the ‘level of standards and expectations’ of the course work,” Lederman writes.

“But they found that on only one of the five measures, cognitive complexity of the course work, did the elite colleges in the study outperform the non-elite institutions.”

First, we note that highly-qualified honors students at almost all colleges, including many less prestigious public universities, are far more likely to encounter more “cognitive complexity” in their honors courses. Whether this results from having more depth or breadth in actual assignments, from taking harder courses early on, or from engaging in more challenging interactions with similarly smart students and the best faculty, the learning experience in honors embraces complexity.

We also have to agree with one of the longest and most thoughtful comments posted on Lederman’s article, by one “catorenasci”:

“Well, is [more cognitive complexity] a surprise to anyone? After all…on average the students at elite colleges and universities (private or public) have demonstrated higher cognitive ability than the students at less prestigious colleges and universities. Which means that the faculty can teach at a level of greater cognitive complexity without losing (many) students.”

The full comment from “catorenasci” also seems to be on the mark when it comes to improved instruction in all other measured areas on the part of colleges with less prestige, regardless of honors affiliation.

“As for the level of ‘teaching quality’ based on faculty knowledge, given the job market today, it should hardly be surprising that it has equaled out since there are many top quality candidates for even less prestigious positions and overall, I would suspect that the ‘quality’ of the PhD’s of faculty at less elite schools is much closer to that of elite schools than it was during the ’50s and ’60s when higher education was expanding rapidly and jobs were plentiful.

“The transformational aspect should not be surprising either: assuming faculty are competent and dedicated, with less able students they will work harder to draw out what they know and build on it. And, it will be more likely that students will experience significant growth as the faculty do this.”