Thoughts on NY Times Letters about Honors Colleges

Honors News: August 25, 2015

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

To the Editor:

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

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

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

PAULA MARANTZ COHEN
Dean, Pennoni Honors College
Drexel University
Philadelphia

To the Editor:

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

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

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

Responses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Goldwater Scholar Profiles: University of Georgia

Editor’s Note: The post below by UGA Today writer Sam Fahmy is another in our series on 2014 Goldwater scholars from public university honors programs….

Two University of Georgia Honors Students—Tuan Nguyen and Amy Webster—have been named 2014 Barry M. Goldwater Scholars.

The UGA Goldwater Scholars are among a group of 283 recipients of the one- and two-year scholarships that recognize exceptional sophomores and juniors in engineering, mathematics and the natural sciences. UGA students have received the Goldwater Scholarship almost every year since the mid-1990s, and the 2014 recipients bring the university’s total of Goldwater Scholars to 46.

“I am very pleased that UGA is adding two more Goldwater Scholars to the recent and impressive roster of our students who have been recognized for their success in the important fields of engineering, mathematics and the natural sciences,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead. “Such recognition is also a tribute to the faculty and staff in the Honors Program, whose work challenges and supports these very good students. I know that Tuan and Amy have bright futures ahead of them and I offer them my congratulations.”

Nguyen is a junior from Douglasville majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology as well as mathematics in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. He plans to pursue a combined M.D./Ph.D. degree with the ultimate goal of improving cancer diagnostics and treatment.

Webster is a  junior from Kennesaw majoring in genetics and mathematics in the Franklin College. She plans to pursue a doctorate in genetics with the goal of studying the processes that regulate gene expression while also teaching at the university level and promoting scientific literacy.

“I am so happy for both Amy and Tuan, who are most deserving of this recognition,” said David S. Williams, associate provost and director of the Honors Program. “While each deserves credit on their own, their success speaks to the importance of being able to begin significant faculty-mentored undergraduate research through CURO from their first days on campus. This has led them to be able to take full advantage of opportunities both on and beyond campus.”

Nguyen has earned several honors, including a 2013 Goldwater Scholarship honorable mention. He participated in a summer undergraduate research fellowship at the University of California, San Diego, and is a recipient of the UGA Bernard Ramsey Honors Scholarship, the UGA Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunity Honors Scholarship and a CURO Summer Research Fellowship.

He conducts research in the lab of assistant professor Natarajan Kannan, with whom he has co-authored two articles that have been submitted to peer-reviewed journals. He is a member of the UGA Chapter of the International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation and has volunteered at Clarke Middle School in Athens through the group. He is a volunteer tutor through the UGA Division of Academic Enhancement and tutors middle school students through UGA MATHCOUNTS.

Webster has conducted research with UGA Distinguished Research Professor Kelly Dawe and will present her findings at the 2014 UGA CURO Research Symposium. In addition, she worked in the lab of genetics professor Daniel Promislow and has submitted her research findings for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. She also participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience at Emory University.

She is a head coach for UGA MATHCOUNTS and a research editor for the Journal of Young Investigators. She also is active in the Genetics Student Organization, the Navigators Student Ministry and has been involved with University Chorus and Women’s Intramural Basketball.

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was established by Congress in 1986 to honor Senator Barry M. Goldwater, who served his country for 56 years as a soldier and statesman, including 30 years of service in the U.S. Senate. It was designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering, and the Goldwater Scholarship is the premier undergraduate award of its type in these fields.

The 2014 Goldwater Scholars were selected on the basis of academic merit from a field of 1,166 students who were nominated by the faculties of colleges and universities nationwide. The one- and two-year scholarships will cover the cost of tuition, fees, books and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500 per year.

UGA Center Is Incubator for Excellence in Undergraduate Research

The track record of the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO) at the University of Georgia makes the center a model of “high-impact” practices that allow students of exceptional promise to engage in faculty-mentored research almost from the day they arrive at the Athens campus. 

Founded in the late 1990s, CURO allows undergraduates, including non-honors students, to

  1. “create a self-selected research career, allowing them to earn credit hours which can count towards degree program completion.
  2. “gain access to presenting (Symposium); funding (Summer Fellowships) and publishing (JURO, the Journal of Undergraduate Research) opportunities.
  3. “form a mentoring relationship focused on conducting research and professional development.
  4. “develop a deeper understanding of their chosen field by working closely with a research faculty mentor.”

As evidence of the center’s success, UGA can point to the involvement of all of the university’s Goldwater scholarship winners in CURO since the center’s inception, and to the fact that CURO has “figured prominently in the programs of study” for 5 Rhodes Scholars,  5 Gates Cambridge Scholars, 4 Marshall Scholars, 3 Mitchell Scholars, 5 Truman Scholars, 5 Udall Scholars, and Fulbright Student Scholars.

We believe that the Goldwater awards are a strong indication of the level of undergraduate support and mentoring at a given institution, and UGA and CURO offer two special programs to augment the already impressive features of the center:

Summer Fellowship Program–In this extremely intensive program, students submit research proposals for 30 fellowships each summer.  If selected, students spend 320-400 hours over the summer working closely with one or more faculty mentors on the research project that the student has self-selected.  The summer fellowship program has “led directly” to 4 Goldwater  and 2 Udall Scholarships.

CURO Honors Scholarship Program–Honors students in their very first semester at UGA may begin their participation in this program, which focuses on developing the writing, presentation, and other professional skills necessary to clarify and develop their research, and to make it as persuasive as possible.  To date, 7 honors scholars have gone on to win Goldwater scholarships.

Please go to this link for more information on CURO eligibility.