When parents and prospective students think of the advantages of an honors college or program, they often cite smaller classes, talented instructors, priority registration, orbetter housing as being the most important.
But it is extremely important that they do not overlook another advantage that can have the greatest long-term impact on the student’s satisfaction and success: the structured undergraduate research programs that are increasingly affiliated with honors.
The University of Houston Honors College has taken steps to ensure that students not only know about research opportunities but also receive early training in how to conduct research and continued advising for leveraging their research into prestigious fellowships.
The program, called HERE (Houston Early Research Experience), is designed specifically to identify and prepare highly talented students, honors and non-honors, for the process of applying for generous fellowship opportunities. The research along the way promotes more contact between students and professors, more learning in depth, and a greater chance to obtain financial support both for upper-division undergraduate work and for graduate school.
“The HERE program at the University of Houston is an high-impact educational practice that enables fellowship advisors to identify and prepare potential applicants early in their academic careers,” according to Dr. Ben Rayder, Director of Scholarships and Major Awards for the Honors College. “Even though the program is still relatively new, we have already begun to see pipeline effects for student participation in applying for major awards and other experiential learning programs that effectively prepare fellowships candidates.”
The HERE program accomplishes the following:
•Recruits rising sophomore and junior honors students to pursue faculty-mentored research and apply for major awards upon completion of the program
•Integrates theoretical and applied knowledge early in the students’ academic year
•Raises big picture questions that students must collaborate with one another to answer
•Develops foundational research skills
•Builds relationships between students and faculty members
Although the HERE program is designed as an introduction to research and fellowship applications, participation requires a significant commitment. Students meet for five hours a day for a two-week period, during which they submit assignments via Blackboard, work on group assignments, and make final presentations to the group.
Ultimately the honors students receive advising and pursue opportunities in faculty-mentored research, study-abroad activities, service learning projects; most also follow up with preparation and advising related to prestigious fellowships, such as Goldwater Scholarships for undergraduates or Critical Learning and Fulbright Scholarships for seniors.
“The Houston Early Research Experience,” says Honors College Dean, William Monroe, “is proving to be a critical entry point drawing UH students into the substantial range of opportunities available to them for undergraduate research and other high impact experiential learning opportunities.”
Dr. Rayder did a presentation on the HERE program at the recent conference of the National Collegiate Honors Council in New Orleans.
Although rankings of international universities are not especially important for some academic disciplines, rankings of engineering and technology are of significant interest because so many U.S. companies who employ graduates in these fields have extensive international contacts, including multiple office facilities abroad.
Whether you are working for an American engineering or tech company at home or abroad, you will have colleagues from across the globe. At least one measure of your credibility with them could be based on the worldwide prominence of your alma mater.
Below are the top U.S. universities in engineering and technology, according to the Times Higher Ed rankings. The schools are listed in numerical order according to their U.S. ranking with their international ranking alongside. After the top 100 in the world, the rankings begin to group in increments of 25 or 50. World rankings up to 250 are included.
Yes, the title of this post is a mouthful. For years now, I have kept an updated list of the departmental rankings that U.S. News publishes so that I can add them to the biannual profiles I do of honors programs. When the 2020 rankings came out, I wanted to see whether there was any clear relationship between the departmental scores and the academic reputation scores. Then I compared the latest reputation scores with those published in 2015 to see how much had changed. Finally, the table below also includes changes in university rankings and the most recent rankings for social mobility.
(I would welcome comments on this post. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
It appears that the social mobility metric has had some impact, especially if the ranking is very strong, as in the case of many UC campuses and Florida institutions. There is no clear relationship between departmental scores and academic reputation scores. Departmental rankings do have a modest relationship to the overall U.S. News rankings, but there are many inconsistencies. Academic reputation scores do seem to show some “grade inflation” since 2015; often this is the case even when the U.S News ranking has dropped significantly.
The table below includes data for 100 public and private universities.
The cumulative rankings that I do for 15 academic disciplines requires some explanation. U.S. News only ranks graduate programs for most departments. Here are the disciplines for which I have cumulative departmental rankings, using the most recent data (2018): biological sciences; business (undergrad); chemistry, computer science; earth sciences; economics; education; engineering (undergrad);English; history; mathematics; physics; political science; psychology; and sociology.
Not every university has a ranked department in each of the 15 disciplines. I averaged departmental rankings for every university that had at least six ranked departments. For universities with, say, fewer than 12 ranked departments, the total ranking will be artificially high because only the best departments are ranked and I cannot include unranked departents. Most universities have 12-15 departments that are ranked, and so the overall average will be more useful for them. And some of the universities with a small number of ranked departments are specialized, such as Georgia Tech and Caltech. Clearly, even ranking only six or seven departments for those schools and getting a strong result is not misleading.
Universities with fewer than 10 departmental rankings: Colorado School of Mines; Georgia Tech; Miami Ohio; American; Brigham Young; Caltech; Dartmouth; Drexel; Fordham; Georgetown; and RPI.
It should be said that universities with relatively low departmental rankings can legitimately receive high rankings because of other meaningful factors, such as grad and retention rates and class size. Some excellent universities do not have an especially strong research focus or a lot of graduate programs. Dartmouth is one prominent example.
The universities below appear in rank order of their 2020 academic reputation, according to U.S. News.
At last, there is a major study that goes a long way toward answering this important question.
Dr. Art Spisak
Making good use of the increasing data now available on honors programs and their parent institutions, two honors researchers have recently published a major paper that compares honors students and non-honors students from 19 public research universities. Out of 119,000 total students, a total of 15,200 were or had been participants in an honors program.
The study is extremely helpful to parents and prospective honors students who rightly ask how an honors education differs from a non-honors education: How will participation in an honors program shape and differentiate an honors student? Will an honors education be the equivalent of an education at a more prestigious private college?
Feelings about the undergraduate experience: “In their undergraduate experience, students in the honors group reported a more positive experience, on average, than those in the non-honors group.” Both groups attended classes with similar frequency, but honors students reported greater activity in the following areas:
finding coursework so interesting that they do more work than is required;
communicating with profs outside of class;
working with faculty in activities other than coursework;
increasing effort in response to higher standards;
completing assigned reading;
attending to self care, eating, and sleeping;
spending more time studying;
performing more community service and volunteer work;
participating in student organizations;
and, while spending about the same time in employment, finding on-campus employment more frequently than non-honors students.
Participation in “high-impact” activities: These experiences contribute to undergraduate success and satisfaction as well as to higher achievement after graduation. Some of these are restricted to upperclassmen, so the study concentrated on participation by seniors in high-impact activities, including undergraduate research, senior capstone or thesis, collaborating with a professor on a project or paper, studying abroad, or serving in a position of leadership.
“Those [students] in the honors student segment of the senior sample had markedly higher cumulative college grade point averages.” The cumulative GPA of the honors group was 3.65; for the non-honors group it was 3.31. “A grade point average of 3.31 is located at the 38th percentile in the overall distribution within the study sample, and a grade point average of 3.65 is at the 69th percentile.” The authors found that the very significant difference was “particularly impressive” given that the high school GPAs of honors and non-honors students did not vary so significantly. Honors students were also 14% more likely to have served as an officer in a campus organization.
Students in the honors group were 77% more likely to have assisted faculty in research projects, 85% percent more likely to have studied abroad, and 2.5 times more likely to have conducted undergraduate research under faculty guidance.
Intellectual curiosity: Honors students expressed a statistically significant but not dramatically greater degree of intellectual curiosity; however, their intellectual curiosity was aligned with the “prestige” of an academic major. The study did not measure whether this attachment to prestige reflected a desire for greater intellectual challenge or for higher salaries associated with many such majors. (Or both.) Both groups placed similar emphasis on the importance of high pay after graduation and on career fulfillment.
Diversity: The study found that African American students were only 52% as likely to be in an honors program as they are to be in the larger university sample. Latin American students were 58% as likely. These figures may be due in part to the fact that, as a group, the 19 research universities “are located in states that are somewhat more white than the nation as a whole, but most of the discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that Research 1 universities do not, in general, have enrollments that are especially representative of ethnic and racial minorities.” On the other hand, LGBQ, transgender, and gender-questioning students “appear to be slightly over-represented among honors students.”
Low-income and first generation participation: These students “are significantly and substantially under-represented in the honors group.” Pell Grant recipients are 30% less likely to be in honors than in the non-honors group; and 40% of first-generation students are less likely to be in the honors group.
Test scores and HSGPA: There was a difference between honors and non-honors students, but it was not dramatic. “Regardless of which test score was used, the honors group had scores that were about 10% higher, on average.” (In our ratings of honors programs, we have found that honors test scores were about 17% higher, based on actual honors scores and the mid-range of test scores in U.S. News rankings.) The average high school GPA for the honors group was .11 points higher than for the non-honors group.
The study used data from the 2018 Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey for 2018. Although the study only used data from Research 1 universities that comprise only 3% of all colleges and universities in the nation, R1 universities enroll 28.5% of all undergraduates pursuing four-year degrees.
Research centered on honors education is increasingly important: An estimated 300,000-400,000 honors students are enrolled in American colleges and universities today.
Although a recent study suggests that traditional dorms with hall baths might be better than new apartment-style residence halls in promoting strong connections and higher GPAs, the study does not take into account the positive impact that living/learning programs provide in the newer residences.
The study, summarized in an Inside Higher Ed article, found that the first-semester, first-year GPAs of African American students at an anonymous liberal arts college in the South were higher (2.3 vs 1.9) for students in traditional dorms. The same was true for white students but the improvement was minor (2.9 vs 2.8). The four-year study involved 5,538 students, including 800 African American students.
Accepting the premise that more social interaction enhances a sense of belonging and that this leads to improved academic performance, the study seems to favor traditional dorms that guarantee a high degree of social contact. But the idea that students in apartment-style (or suite-style) residence halls live in relative isolation does not fully consider that in newer honors living/learning residence halls, most of which are suite-style, students not only associate with a ready-made cohort of similar residents but they have a full range of honors programming available to them.
These include honors social activities within the dorm; faculty and outside speakers for honors students; access to in-depth research and faculty support; honors study-abroad programs; and smaller classes in the first year.
Non-honors living/learning communities such as those, notably, at Michigan State University, provide subject-area or cultural themes that bring students together in their residence community.
It is also true that traditional residence halls can offer living/learning programs. A better way to analyze the impact of traditional and suite-style dorms on student socialization and academic performance would be to compare GPAs between students in traditional living/learning dorms and students in suite-style dorms with living/learning programs.
A few honors colleges and programs have purposely built new residences that are traditional in design, based on the premise that they are more effective in promoting collegiality and a sense of belonging. For parents and prospective students, especially those looking at honors programs, it would be a good idea to consider the programming and the design and amenities of residence halls, in the order of importance to you.
The Inside Higher Ed article did not report on the types of programming in the residence halls involved in the study. The link to the actual study states that a $43 payment is required for access, so the full details are not reported here either
Great news for undergraduates in STEM fields: The Barry M. Goldwater Foundation has more than doubled the number of annual scholarships it awards to sophomores and juniors who have outstanding potential to do research. Along with the Truman Scholarship, generally awarded to college juniors, the Goldwater Scholarship is the most prestigious undergraduate award. It is also closely linked to success in achieving prestigious post-graduate scholarships.
More good news: 252 of the Goldwater Scholars in 2019 are young women.
UConn Has Four Goldwater Scholars in 2019
In previous years, only a few public universities had three or more Goldwater Scholars in a given year; the maximum allowable is four scholarships. In 2018, seven public universities had three or more scholars. In 2019, the number increased to 40 public universities.
“From an estimated pool of over 5,000 college sophomores and juniors, 1223 natural science, engineering and mathematics students were nominated by 443 academic institutions to compete for the 2019 Goldwater scholarships. Of students who reported, 241 of the Scholars are men, 252 are women [493 total], and virtually all intend to obtain a Ph.D. as their highest degree objective. Sixty-two Scholars are mathematics and computer science majors, 360 are majoring in the natural sciences, and 74 are majoring in engineering. Many of the Scholars have published their research in leading journals and have presented their work at professional society conferences.”
In 2018, the foundation awarded only 209 scholarships.
“Scholarships of up to $7,500 a year are provided to help cover costs associated with tuition, mandatory fees, books, room and board. A sophomore who receives a Goldwater Scholarship will receive up to $7,500 in each of his/her junior and senior years. A junior who receives a Goldwater Scholarship will receive up to $7,500 in his/her senior year.”
“Many of the Scholars have dual majors in a variety of mathematics, science, engineering, and computer science. Scholars have impressive academic and research credentials that have garnered the attention of prestigious post-graduate fellowship programs. Goldwater Scholars have been awarded 92 Rhodes Scholarships, 137 Marshall Awards, 159 Churchill Scholarships, 104 Hertz Fellowships, and numerous other distinguished awards like the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.”
The public universities with four Goldwater Scholars in 2019 are listed below:
Those with three awards in 2019 are below:
The College Board has developed a new data-driven tool designed to give college admissions officers the ability to evaluate test scores in light of an applicant’s educational, social, and economic background. The effort is the Board’s latest attempt to offset criticism that its tests favor the affluent, Asian students, and white students.
The new tool could also increase Latino and African American enrollment without the specific consideration of race or ethnicity, otherwise known as affirmative action, an approach that the Supreme Court might soon disallow.
So far, 50 colleges have been using the tool; it will expand to 150 later this year and be available to all schools in 2020.
The tool utilizes 15 factors (listed below) and provides a spreadsheet for admissions officers to use in analyzing the factors in relation to scores.
The new approach is certain to draw criticism, however. Students who live in relatively affluent neighborhoods, attend strong high schools, and enroll in advanced placement courses will receive low “adversity scores” and may find themselves relatively less likely to be admitted to some colleges.
Another issue: the data is based mostly on census block and other federal data, not on individual financial information. A wealthy white student might live in a gentrified neighborhood with inaccurate data indicating that it is still a lower income area. Similarly, a disadvantaged student might live just inside a census tract with high median income stats. Students will not receive a copy of the score–another area of controversy.
Students who attend highly competitive high schools in states with automatic admission based on high school class standing, such as Texas, already find it relatively harder to graduate in the top 6th or 7th percentile of their class. They are admitted “holistically” if they are not in the top percentiles; low adversity scores might narrow their chances even more. Or help them…who knows?
On the other hand, if the new tool on its own can lead to the higher enrollment of students now benefiting from automatic admission, Texas might be able to abandon the rule altogether.
High School Information–Four Factors
Average senior class size;
Average percentage of students taking the SAT;
Average freshman SAT score at colleges attended by SAT-taking graduates of the applicant’s high school;
Percentage of students at the high school who participate in the free and reduced-price lunch program.
High School AP Opportunity–Four Factors
Number of unique AP courses taught in that high school;
Percentage of the senior class who took at least one AP exam;
Average number of AP Exams taken by graduates who sat for at least one exam;
Average AP scores across all AP Exam takers and exams.
High School Percentiles–One Factor
The 25th, 50th, and 75th old SAT percentiles on Critical Reading, Math,
and Math + Critical Reading scores for graduates.
Neighborhood and High School Context–Six Factors
Undermatch Risk–Academic undermatch occurs when a student’s academic credentials substantially exceed the credentials of students enrolled in the same postsecondary institution.
Crime Risk–The Crime Risk represents the likelihood of being a victim of a
crime–not the likelihood of committing a crime.
Family Stability–Family stability is a combined measure based on the proportion of two-parent families, single-parent families, and children living under the poverty line within each neighborhood, or across the neighborhoods of past students attending that high school.
Educational Attainment–Educational attainment is a combined measure that looks at the pattern of educational attainment demonstrated by young adults in the community. ESL participation.
Housing Stability–Housing stability is a composite measure that includes vacancy rates, rental versus home ownership, and mobility/housing turnover, again based on aggregate population statistics.
Median Family Income — Median family income is based on weighted data from the Census/ American Community Survey.
Overall context is a weighted average of the individual metrics listed above. College admissions officers receive (1) bar graphs showing the applicant’s SAT score relative to others who share the applicant’s overall percentile of neighborhood
adversity and high school adversity and (2) the average freshman SAT score of entering students at the colleges that these respective groups of students attended.
You have already made big decisions about your life, some at least as important as choosing a college. You are not a finished person (no one is while they are alive) but you are a “started” person. You have failed, succeeded, worked hard or not worked hard enough; learned from your mistakes or not learned much at all; taken care of your mind and body or done them damage; and suffered from events beyond your control.
You have probably experienced more of life than most people would suspect. Now you are here. Heed the words of the late tennis star Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
“Now” is mid-April and “Here” at hand is your next big decision if you are among the declining majority who do not make college decisions early.
Advice about what to do now is abundant. Net cost. Distance from home. Strength in your major field. Reputation, ranking. Where do your parents want you to go? Where are your friends going? Your current romantic interest, if any?
But let’s go back to Arthur Ashe. “Start where you are.” Figuring this out can be difficult. Be honest with yourself. You know your grades, your test scores, your recommendations, your likely major. But is that data science major your choice or someone else’s? Are you really prepared for it? How about premed? Do you want people to say, “Look at her, she’s a physician?” Or do you want to do what a physician actually does, after a decade of extremely hard work? Computer science. Do you want to write computer code or get paid to write computer code that you don’t care about? You love your parents, and they love you; but do you want to do what they believe would be best for you or what you truly want to do?
If you choose a STEM field, think about the math involved, the usually strict major requirements, the sometimes narrow career options. Your parents want you to have a good life, and in recent years our culture has increasingly defined such a life as one with a highly remunerative career. Be honest but be prudent about the connection between college and career. If you love history, literature, or philosophy, be assured that those disciplines reflect the best of humanity and that your love of them speaks well of you. Be proud of this profound connection. But this country and the whole world have changed. Attend to the change; minor or double major so that you have a reasonably secure future. And proceed with confidence that your work in the humanities will be as big a part of that secure future as your more vocational minor.
Are your parents hard-pressed for money? Are you a late bloomer? Start at a less selective college, at lower cost, and work hard. A strong start can make up for a lot of setbacks. Point yourself in the right direction. The rest will follow.
“Use what you have.” Having lived more broadly than many people would believe you have lived, you know what you are most afraid of, hurt by, devoted to, strongest at, or confident of. If you are confident in math, you might want to zero in on that subject or hold on to that wonderful ability while pursuing something different. If you are terrified of speaking in front of people, are you willing to see this as an obstacle you now have but are determined to overcome or does the fear reflect a deep-seated and authentic introversion that could lead to artistic or scientific achievement at the highest level without confronting the fear directly? Using what you have requires you to understand that what you assume is a deficiency might turn out to be your own kind of strength.
“Do what you can.” A math deficiency, a fear of public speaking, a loathing for English grammar–they might stand in your way, but be patient. Don’t sell yourself short because you aren’t good at everything. Few people are outstanding in a wide range of endeavors. Some of these people were not outstanding in much of anything until they saw an opening, a way to go forward with just enough confidence or hope to move to the next step. In college, it is often the right instructor leading the way through a subject the student disliked or feared. The student earned a tough B. In the next difficult class she got an A minus. Then an A. Then she did it again. Then it was something that she just did.
If being realistic about starting where you are leaves you in, say, a regional public university that is not among the “public Ivies” or is not well known outside of your own state, doing what you can may still yield astonishing results. In recent years students from Youngstown State, UW-Eau Claire, and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga have gone on to win Rhodes Scholarships. Did they have to transfer to Princeton in order to be chosen for this most prestigious award? No, they stayed where they were, used what they had to the utmost, and did the very best that any student, anywhere, could do.
“It has become a mantra in some quarters to assert that standardized tests measure wealth more than intellectual ability or academic potential, but this is not actually the case. These tests clearly assess verbal and mathematical skills, which a century of psychological science shows are not mere reflections of upbringing. Research has consistently found that ability tests like the SAT and the ACT are strongly predictive of success in college and beyond, even after accounting for a student’s socioeconomic status.”
For years, U.S. News has used test scores and selection rates as ranking data for the annual “Best Colleges” report. The publication has slightly reduced the impact of test scores in recent editions.
Below I will explain why we do not include test scores as a metric and argue that, for honors and non-honors students, other factors are more important in predicting success. (High school GPA is certainly a major factor; but since almost all honors students have high GPAs, I do not discuss the impact of GPA in this post.)
In their published scholarly work, the authors argue that test scores by themselves correlate very strongly ( r= -.892) with the annual U.S. News Best Colleges rankings for national universities even though the test scores count for only 7.75 percent of the total ranking score. (The authors do not cite the impact of test scores on other ranking factors such as graduation and retention rates, which together account for 22 percent of the total ranking score.)
Our own work for the past eight years, however, shows that test scores do not have a similar correlation to quantitative assessments of honors programs. In our publications we list minimum and average admissions test scores for all programs we rate, but we do not count the scores alone as a rating factor.
Here’s why we do not use test scores as a measure: The factors that make for an excellent honors program are primarily structural. The major building blocks are the credits required for honors completion; the number of honors class sections offered, by type and academic discipline; the availability of priority registration and honors housing; the size of honors class sections; and the number of staff to assist students.
So, don’t the test scores drive the university graduation rates of honors program entrants, just as they do in elite colleges? The answer is not so much; the correlation is r= .50
Admittedly, it is probably difficult for a student with, say, a 1050 SAT score to succeed in an elite college or in most honors programs. But within a fairly large range of SAT scores (~1280-1510), the opportunities for success are more often present given a conducive structure. With every biannual review of honors data, I find great pleasure in discovering outstanding honors programs that are not housed in highly- ranked and extremely selective universities. The golden nuggets of excellence in higher education are scattered much farther and wider than many would have us believe.
I am strongly opposed to the numerical ranking of colleges or their honors programs, whether or not test scores are included in the methodology. I ranked honors program one time, in 2012, and regret doing so. Yes, I have data that allows me to numerically differentiate the total rating scores earned by honors programs. But anyone who wants to provide some kind of assessment of colleges or programs needs to do so with the assumption that their methodology is subjective and imperfect. Ordinal rankings based on distinctions of one point or fractions of a point give readers a veneer of certitude that a qualitative difference exists even if it (often) does not.
Although we do not rank honors programs, we do place them in one of five rating groups, a process that is similar to rating films on a five-star basis but based on quantitative rather than completely subjective data. The seven honors programs in the top group in 2018 (out of 41) had average SAT scores (enrolled students) ranging from 1280 to 1490, a sizable range.
Honors completion rates are something of an issue these days. An honors completion rate is the percentage of first year honors entrants who complete at least one honors program graduation requirement by the time of graduation from the university. About 42 percent of honors students do not complete honors requirements before graduation, although a very high percentage of honors entrants (87 percent) do graduate from the university.
The seven honors programs with honors completion rates of 75 percent or higher in our 2018 ratings had average SAT scores ranging from 1340 to 1510; the mean for this group was 1420. The mean SAT for the 31 (of 41) programs that provided completion rates was 1405, not much lower. And another seven programs with mean SAT scores of 1420 or higher had completion rates below 58 percent, the group mean.
The mean SAT score for all 41 rated programs was 1407; the mean SAT for the top seven programs was only one point higher at 1408.
It is clear, at least with respect to honors programs, that average SAT scores are not the best predictors of program effectiveness. What does this mean for the value of test scores nationwide, if anything?
I think it means that for students who are in the 1280 to 1500 SAT range, success depends as much or more on mentoring, smaller interdisciplinary sections, student engagement, course availability, community (including housing), and advising support than it does on test scores.
The good news here is that even for students who are not in honors programs, high levels of achievement are accessible to students who do not begin college with extremely high test scores, although non-honors students will probably have to assert themselves more in order to benefit from the strongest attributes of their university.
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.