Are Public Honors Programs Shifting too Much Toward ‘Experiential Learning’?

The following post is by site editor John Willingham.

For more than six years I have been fortunate enough to receive large amounts of data from public university honors colleges and programs. The data I received for the 2018-2019 edition of INSIDE HONORS pointed toward a trend in honors education: the partial substitution of experiential learning for traditional academic coursework.

First, what is experiential learning?

Students can earn credit (or “points” or “units”) for the following: doing internships, studying abroad, or conducting mentored research; publishing in journals and making presentations at conferences; applying for national awards (Truman Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships, etc.); serving on honors committees and in other student groups, and engaging in leadership training; obtaining certification or experience in promoting diversity, social innovation, and group problem solving; and for participating in the many types of “service learning,” usually involving participation in community or university volunteer activities.

Internships, mentored research, and study abroad have long been components of many honors programs; they often carry course credit. (Some of the activities listed above do not award course credit but only points for honors completion.)  Since the Great Recession, internships are increasingly important for practical reasons. The same can be said for some training or experience in collective problem solving. Sometimes the latter can take the form of group projects that have a vocational focus (entrepreneurship, engineering); other group projects take a turn toward solving social problems.

So it is clear, at least to me, that part of the focus on experiential learning is a response to changing economic conditions. And the experiential options all appear to have laudable purposes. I believe advocates of experiential learning when they say their programs are “high impact” and can teach lifetime lessons to students. The question is not whether experiential learning is worthwhile but, rather, how much of it is appropriate? Thus far, the trend toward experiential learning appears to be centered almost exclusively in public university honors programs.

I reviewed honors requirements for 40 public university honors programs, many of them in flagship institutions, along with the same number of honors programs in private universities of approximately equivalent reputation. Of the public honors programs, eight have implemented or increased the impact of experiential learning toward honors completion in the last two years. But only one private university honors program has done so.

Note: Below please see the public and private universities I reviewed for experiential learning emphasis. Those in bold have notably increased experiential learning in their honors programs during the past two years. This does mean that, in each instance, experiential learning is necessarily over-emphasized. Some of the programs have retained at least one honors completion option that requires extensive academic coursework.

As recently as two years ago, I observed only two or three public honors programs that featured the emphasis on experiential learning that I see today.

If the trend continues, it could redefine the meaning of public honors education and further differentiate that education from what is offered by private universities in ways that might not appeal to many parents and students. After all, “going to college” has meant earning academic course credits in seminars and the disciplines, with participation in campus groups or volunteer work being left up to the students.

Elite private universities, most of which do not have honors programs, continue to follow the traditional model. Internships and studying abroad are common, sometimes for academic credit; but participation in other activities is based on student choice.

Most public honors programs have promoted themselves by promising the equivalent of an elite college education within a large public research university. I call this the standard hybrid model for honors colleges and programs. Thus far, the elite college part of the hybrid has been grounded in academic coursework.

While it is fully justifiable to augment academic coursework with some experiential opportunities, providing experiential honors credit (but sometimes not course credit) for one-fourth or more of the total honors completion requirement could result in a hybrid within a hybrid: some honors programs will continue to offer mostly traditional academic courses and others will ratchet up experiential learning.

Where experiential learning is prominent, the result will be less academically focused. How will parents and students react to this? They are often trying to decide between elite private colleges, which still emphasize coursework, and honors programs, some of which are becoming more experiential.

Here are some pros and cons regarding this trend:

Pros of Experiential Learning…

A reflection of the public service mission of university (one reason for current absence of experiential learning in private honors programs?)

Personal growth for students through broader engagement outside of the classroom

A stimulating way for students to apply learning outside the classroom

An enhancement to career prospects

An antidote to the self-focused culture around us

Less costly to staff and fund; no teaching faculty involved

 

Cons of Experiential Learning…

Distraction from core and major requirements

Complaints from students, parents based on above, and on confusing completion options

Challenges of finding meaningful opportunities

More staff to support experiential activities

Less time for academic electives

Duplication of university-wide or other readily available experiential opportunities

Of greatest concern here is the last “Pro” listing: “Less costly to staff and fund; no teaching faculty involved.” How tempting it must be to administrators to offer honors credit without having to beg and borrow faculty and classroom space. If this becomes the primary factor in shifting from academic coursework to experiential learning, the trend could accelerate and have a profound impact on public honors education.

To remain competitive with private colleges and universities, public honors programs should continue to be enhanced academic programs at their core, seeing their central mission as providing highly talented students a top-flight education, often in-state, and almost always at lesser cost than private university alternatives. When experiential learning accounts for more than about one-fourth of honors requirements, the core mission is likely to be compromised.

Public University Honors Programs

Alabama
Arizona
Arizona St
Arkansas
Auburn
Clemson
Connecticut
CUNY
Washington
Colorado St
Delaware
Florida
Florida St
Georgia
Georgia St
Houston
Indiana
Iowa
South Carolina
Kansas
Kentucky
LSU
Maryland
Massachusetts
Miami Univ
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Montana
UT Austin
NJIT
New Hampshire
New Mexico
North Carolina CH
Oklahoma
Oklahoma St
Oregon
Oregon St
Penn St
Purdue

Private University Honors Programs

USC
Syracuse
Boston Univ
SMU
Northeastern
Villanova
Miami Fl
George Washington
BYU
Fordham
American
Baylor
TCU
Univ of San Diego
Howard
Loyola Chicago
Marquette
Univ of Denver
Clarkson
Drexel
RIT
Saint Louis
Tulsa
Dayton
DePaul
Duquesne
Seton Hall
Catholic
La Verne
Hofstra
Mercer
Adelphi
St. John’s
Seattle Pacific
Pace
Suffolk 
Carnegie Mellon
Widener
NYU
Lehigh
Notre Dame

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