Penn State Schreyer Dean: Honors College is a Gateway and Incubator for ALL Students

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.

Innovative Incubator

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.


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.”

Dean, Pennoni Honors College
Drexel University

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.”

York, Pa.
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?

(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.

Schreyer Honors College: A Parent’s Perspective

Tracy Riegel is the parent of two Penn State students and a contributor to the We Admit blog, from which the following post is taken. Tracy and her husband, Rick, are both Penn State alumni and members of the the Penn State Parents Program. As Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College releases its decisions today, Tracy shares her thoughts on the program:

I remember this time last year when my daughter Meghan was eagerly waiting for decisions from several private schools — one Ivy League school, one out-of-state school, and Schreyer Honors College. Needless to say, it was an anxious time for her and certainly one of self-reflection. After many years of studying, test taking, paper writing, SATs, AP tests, and countless other activities it all came down to this moment.

Like you, we had many discussions about the pros and cons of the various schools where she applied. We talked about courses, academic resources, campus life, opportunities to learn beyond the classroom, where could she see herself living, cost, value —it was a long list. Finally, decisions arrived and she was accepted to several of her choices, including the Ivy. She ultimately chose to attend Penn State and the Schreyer Honors College. Why? Here are just a few of the reasons:

  1. Only 300 students in each class (approximately), which was appealing to my daughter to be in such a selective group.
  2. Strong faculty advising.
  3. The honors curriculum covers all majors.
  4. Opportunities to take part in leadership development activities specifically for Schreyer scholars.
  5. The Schreyer Ambassador Travel Grant, which provides financial assistance for about 200 students per year to pursue education, research, service, or study abroad.
  6. A number of new service and leadership initiatives that are now underway domestically and internationally.
  7. Guaranteed housing in the center of campus.
  8. Donuts with Dean Brady — an opportunity to meet with the dean in an informal setting.
  9. SHO Time first year orientation and the opportunity to be an orientation leader as an upperclassman.
  10. Preferred scheduling for classes. Your student will not have to enroll in the last section available, which is usually at 8 a.m.!

I’m sure there are many more personal reasons why students would choose the Schreyer Honors College. Meghan felt that it was a good way to make a large university smaller. She is able to take advantage of all the Penn State has to offer as well as those opportunities within Schreyer. I won’t kid you, the classes are hard (just hearing her talk about her math and physics classes made my head spin!) and time management is key. She is hoping to be accepted as a research assistant this summer on campus with a professor, is currently tutoring for a physics class, and is involved in the THON organization Atlas. She hopes to go to Singapore in May for two weeks for a class, and help with SHO Time orientation next fall.

Meghan made the right choice for herself and for her education. She had many opportunities and chose Schreyer Honors College.

Honors Residence Halls–Penn State

Located in South Campus at Penn State, the two honors halls–Atherton and Simmons–are right by College Avenue, a great location for social activities and the closest residence halls to downtown. On College Avenue, students can find bookstores, theaters, pharmacies, pizza and hamburger joints, restaurants, and pubs.

The two honors halls are south-central on campus, not as close to most classrooms as North and West campus dorms, perhaps, but still a great location. The honors halls are adjacent to the nationally-recognized Schreyer Honors College offices and share the neighborhood with three dining halls, one on site, and many private restaurants.

The halls are traditional, meaning that residents share rooms, mostly doubles, and also share corridor bathrooms. Atherton has a 24/7 computer room that has a printer and 29 computer terminals for student use. The Schreyer Honors College administration offices are also in Atherton. The mail room for both halls is in Simmons. Some students consider Simmons to be the best dorm on the entire Penn State campus. Both halls also have a grand piano.

Each hall has laundry facilities, and Atherton has a TV lounge and a 24-hour study room called the “Zombie Lounge.” Simmons has two TV lounges and a “cultural/coffee house lounge” as well.