“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 (The authors do not cite the impact of test scores on other ranking factors such as graduation and retention rates, which together account for 22 percent of the total ranking score.)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.
Editor’s Note: This is the third and final post in our series on honors program completion rates.
In the first post, we wrote about the hybrid structure of honors programs and how that can affect honors completion rates. An honors completion rate is the percentage of honors students who complete all honors course requirements for at least one option by the time they graduate. The second post presented a tentative formula for evaluating honors completion rates.
This post has two parts. The first part compares honors completion rates of main option and multiple option honors programs; the second part (2) a compares completion rates of honors colleges and honors programs.
Main option programs emphasize only one curriculum completion path, usually requiring more than 30 honors credits and often an honors thesis as well. Multiple option programs offer two or more completion paths for first-year students. One option might require 24 honors credits; another might require 15-16 credits. Either of these might also require a thesis.
Many universities are now establishing honors colleges. These usually have a dean and a designated staff of advisors. They typically provide at least enough honors housing space for first-year students. Some began as honors programs and then re-formed into honors colleges. Quite a few honors colleges have significant endowments.
Honors programs do not have a dean, but are administered by a director and staff. Sometimes there are few real differences between honors colleges and programs. In general, however, honors colleges have more staff and offer more access to honors housing.
We received data from 23 honors colleges and eight honors programs, having a combined enrollment of more than 64,000 honors students. The 31 parent universities had an average U.S. News ranking of 126, ranging from the low 50s to higher than 200.
The first summary is below:
PART ONE: SUMMARY STATISTICS
MAIN OPT PROGRAMS VS
MULTI OPTION PROGRAMS
NO. OF PROGRAMS
NO. HONORS STUDENTS
COMPLETION % rate
UNIVERSITY GRAD RT
UNIV GRAD RT>COMPLETION RT
HONORS GRAD RATE
HONORS GR RT>COMPLETION RT
HONORS GR RT>UNIV GR RT
TEST SCORES ADJ TO SAT
CURRICULUM REQUIREMENT AVG
THESIS OPTION Y/N
THESIS REQ ALL OPTIONS Y/N
DORM RMS / FR & SOPH
HON CLASS SEATS / HON STUDENTS
APPLY SEP TO HONORS Y/N
The second summary, comparing honors colleges and honors programs, is below:
Honors completion rates, as we noted in a previous post, are a complicated issue. They represent the percentage of students who enter an honors program and then complete all honors requirements for at least one completion option by the time they graduate.
They are related to university freshman retention rates and university graduation rates, but in order to evaluate them there must be some workable baseline completion rate derived from a significant sample of programs.
Honors deans and directors at 31 public university honors programs contributed the data used to calculate the values in the next paragraph, along with extensive additional data we use in rating honors programs. The 31 programs enrolled more than 64,000 honors students in Fall 2017. At some point we might include completion rates as a metric; if we do, then this formula, or an improved version, might be used.
This tentative formula takes into account (1) the average (mean) honors completion rate for the whole data set (57.88 percent); (2) the mean university-wide freshman retention rate for the whole data set (86.81 percent); (3) the completion rate of each program; (4) the freshman retention rate for the parent university of each program; and (5) the graduation rate of each university.
The formula assumes that a desirable target honors completion rate should at least equal the midway point between the university graduation rate and the adjusted honors completion rate.(See examples below, however, for programs that have honors completion rates that exceed the university graduation rate.) The formula can easily be changed to include lower or higher target levels by increasing or reducing the divisor.
H = the mean honors completion rate for the data set;
F = the mean freshman retention rate for the data set;
P = the program completion rate;
C = the completion rate of each program adjusted to the university freshman retention rate (.67*R);
R = the freshman retention rate of each parent university;
G = the graduation rate of each parent university;
T = the estimated target completion rate after the formula is applied. T = (G + C) /2. This is an estimate of what the minimum completion rate should be, given the university’s freshman retention rate and graduation rate, and the mean completion rate and mean freshman retention rate for this data set. Other data sets would of course have different data, but the formula could still be applied.
The completion rates of ten programs exceeded the graduation rates of their parent universities.
Here is the formula, where P = 61%; R = 92%; G = 83%:
First step = (H/F), or .57.88 / 86.81. The result is .67. This is a constant for this data set.
Second step is to adjust the completion rate in relation to the university freshman retention rate = .67 *R, or .67 *92. The result is 61.64 (C), a bit higher than the actual program completion rate of 61.0 (P), because of the relatively high freshman retention rate.
Third step is to adjust the completion rate C in relation to the university graduation rate in order to calculate the target completion rate. T = (G + C) /2, or (83 + 61.64) /2 = 72.32 (T).
Fourth step is to calculate P – T, which would be 61.00 – 72.32 = –11.32. This step calculates the extent to which the program completion rate varies from the estimated target rate. The program is performing below the estimated target rate. The relatively high university graduation rate is the main reason.
Honors program A had a program completion rate (P) of 84%, a freshman retention rate (R) of 88%, and a university graduation rate (G) of 73%. The C rate would be .67*88, or 58.96. The T calculation would be (G + C) /2, or (73 + 58.96) / 2= 65.98 (T). Now calculate C – T, (or 84 – 65.98) = +18.02. This program is performing far above its estimated target rate.
Honors program B had the same program completion rate (P) of 84% but a much higher freshman retention rate (R) of 95%, and a university graduation rate (G) of 81%. Calculating the C value would be .67*95, or 63.7, and the T would (G + C) /2, or (81 – 63.7) /2 = 73.325. When we calculate C – T, (84 – 73.325), the result is + 11.675. This program is performing well above its estimated rage, but even with the same completion rate as Program A, the impact of higher graduation and freshman retention rates for Program B causes its relative performance rating to be lower than Program A. In other words, the expectations were higher for Program B. Both programs are exceptional in that their honors completion rates exceed their university graduation rates.
Honors program D had a program completion rate (P) of 40%, a freshman retention rate (R) of 82%, and a university graduation rate (G) of 53%. C would be .67*82, or 54.94. T would be (G + C) /2, or (53 + 54.94) /2 = 53.97. Calculating C – T, the result is 40 – 53.97, or -13.97. Program D is significantly underperforming based on the formula.
This post, by editor John Willingham, is about 4,000 words in length, so not a quick read. As the title indicates, the issue of honors completion is complicated. The post makes frequent references to statistical data. Our thanks to the 31 honors deans and directors who contributed data for this report and for the Fall 2018 edition of INSIDE HONORS, due out in early October.
This post was edited on August 6, 2018. All changes were minor.
First of all, what is an honors completion rate?
It is the percentage of honors program entrants who complete the required honors curriculum by the time of graduation. Many programs have more than one honors curriculum completion option; for example, entering freshmen may be required to finish 30 honors credits and write a thesis for the main option, or they might need to complete only 18 credits without a thesis for a lower option. Honors completion rates are not the same as graduation rates. Entering honors students, because of their strong credentials, will have very high graduation rates regardless of honors completion.
Completing the requirements of an honors program is typically not directly related to graduating with Latin honors (cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude) even though some universities do make the connection. Latin honors are most often tied to a student’s university grade point average or class standing. In many colleges and universities a student can graduate with Latin honors without taking any honors courses or writing a thesis. Many, if not most, honors program completers do also earn Latin honors.
At least two researchers have written that honors completion rates can be extremely low (in the 30 percent range) and that, because publicizing completion rates can be embarrassing to some programs and their parent institutions, the rates are a “Dirty little secret.” Academic studies leave the impression that having 50 percent or more of honors students complete one or more options could be, if not desirable, then acceptable. Using any set percentage as a standard is, however, questionable. (Please see below.)
University of South Carolina
The data we have received does provide evidence that some program completion rates are as low as 30 percent. On the other hand, the mean six-year completion rate in our own study of 31 honors programs, enrolling more than 64,000 honors students, was 58 percent. The years covered were 2010-2011—2015-2016.
Some honors educators believe that offering the lower, “mid-career” options increases the likelihood of at least some level of completion. The researchers cited above found evidence that mid-career completers are also inclined to add higher levels of honors completion before graduation.
Academic studies of honors retention, completion, and university graduation rates have focused on individual programs rather than on a significant range of programs. These studies have evaluated the impact that program curriculum requirements, entrance test scores, high school GPAs, housing, co-curricular activities, first-year seminars, and other factors have had on honors retention, completion, and graduation.
Our own work began with an analysis of 14 factors: program size; mean test scores of admitted students; number of honors credits required for completion; six-year graduation rate of honors entrants; six-year university graduation rates; university freshman retention rates; number of honors sections offered; average size of honors classes; number of honors sections in key academic disciplines; percentage of honors program members occupying classroom seats; comparison of main option and multiple option program completion rates; impact of a thesis requirement; the percentage of honors residence hall places available for the first two years; and the impact of requiring a separate honors application or credentials. After considering the potential value of each factor as an independent variable in our final models, we excluded some of factors based on tested co-linearity.
Again, we will publish a full statistical report in a separate post. We have also developed a formulafor estimating target completion rates, taking into account variations in rates for honors completion, freshman retention, and university-wide graduation.
Below is a detailed discussion of the honors completion issue.
Honors educators and university administrators have a keen interest in achieving high honors completion rates. Honors students bring higher test score profiles to the university as a whole, and one would anticipate that being in an honors program would make it even more likely that these students would go on to graduate and, in the process, improve the university’s retention and graduation rates.
While the academic studies make it clear that honors student entrants, whether completers or not, have high retention and graduation rates, it is not altogether clear that they have higher rates than those of non-honors students who entered the university with equivalent credentials.
Evidence does indicate, however, that after one or two years in an honors program, students do have better critical thinking skills than similarly qualified non-honors students, probably due to smaller, interdisciplinary classes in the first year and greater interaction with faculty, mentors, and fellow students. And of course these skills and a greater likelihood of obtaining strong faculty recommendations should help students to gain entrance to prestigious graduate and professional schools or find highly desirable and remunerative employment.
Arizona State University
Students who do not actually complete all honors requirements do not perform as well academically as honors completers and also take somewhat longer to complete their undergraduate work. One reason: almost all honors students enjoy some form of priority registration.
The principal goals of honors educators and administrators are to improve the metrics of the host university by enrolling high quality students and to provide those students with an enhanced education that can compare favorably with the education one might receive in an elite private college or university.
Our data and other studies show that honors programs do meet the goal of improving university metrics. Honors entrants (not necessarily program completers) on average graduate at a rate 19.7 percentage points higher than the rate for their parent universities as a whole, according to our data. For programs housed in universities with relatively low university graduation rates, the difference can be more than 35 percentage points. (Of course, honors entrants who graduate make up a part of the graduation rate of the university as a whole.)
The main goal of honors educators, however, is to provide an enhanced education.
Honors completion rates should surely be one measure of meeting this goal. Low completion rates are an especially discouraging result given the cost and effort allocated to honors. “Non-participation or minimal participation of honors students is the honors equivalent of poor overall university retention and graduation rates,” according to one paper on the subject.
The quote is probably accurate when it comes to describing the mindset of honors educators. But comparing honors completion rates to, for example, the graduation rates of elite colleges and universities is problematic. Honors programs are a hybrid; this all but universal, structural reality clearly differentiates honors programs from most elite colleges, which generally do not have honors programs. (More on the hybrid issue below.)
Comparing honors completion rates with the graduation rates of the parent university as a whole is more reasonable, provided that there is some baseline ratio of honors completion rates to university graduation and freshman retention rates. Programs in our study with completion rates above the mean of 58 percent do, on the whole, match the graduation rates for the parent universities. Programs with completion rates below the mean, on average, fail to match the university graduation rate by about 20 percentage points. (These rates and ratios will be discussed in the next post, and, again, we have developed a baseline formula for estimating target completion rates.)
Honors programs seek to combine the best qualities of an elite private college with those of a large research university. In general, this means that the “elite private college” components of this hybrid model are smaller classes, more interdisciplinary sections and class discussion, more faculty mentoring, completion of a substantial honors curriculum and sometimes an undergraduate thesis, and a high level of collegiality in the form of co-curricular activities and access to honors housing.
The advantages of the “large research university” include academic majors in abundance, relationships with a broader range of students, more undergraduate research opportunities, study under nationally recognized scholars, the enjoyment of big college football and other athletics, larger alumni networks, and life in a “college town” that is centered on the large university. Some of these advantages are, however, double-edged (see below).
The hybrid model, if realized, would be for many students an ideal college experience. But one can imagine how daunting it is to meet such expectations–to match private elites at their own game and to optimize the research university experience–all simultaneously. Honors and university administrators would like to see honors completion rates that equal or exceed parent university graduation rates, or even the graduation rates of elite colleges. But in the context of honors completion rates, some of the hybrid components are positive while others can work to lower completion rates.
THE HYBRID MODEL: WHAT MAKES IT WORK?
Six of the 31 programs in our study had six-year honors completion rates of 80 percent or higher. (But recall that honors entrants, regardless of honors completion, do graduate from the host university at a much higher rate than the rate for all students, on average about 87 percent.)
These programs are, in alphabetical order, by university: Arizona State Barrett Honors College; CUNY Macaulay Honors College; University of Illinois Campus Honors Program; Penn State Schreyer Honors College; University of South Carolina Honors College; and the UT Austin Plan II Honors Program. Programs with rates of 70 percent or higher, in alphabetical order, are Clemson Calhoun Honors College and the Colorado State Honors Program.
Colorado St University
The six programs with completion rates of 80 percent or higher have striking differences. Barrett Honors College at ASU and the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State make very extensive use of honors contracts and mixed sections. Compared with the funding required for separate honors sections, the cost of contract and mixed sections is much less. Honors contracts allow a student to take a non-honors course for honors credit if the student “contracts” with the instructor to do some form of additional work. Mixed sections are those that include honors and non-honors students; they should be more rigorous or have an honors-only discussion or lab section. Schreyer Honors College at Penn State has an extremely large percentage of mixed sections—but honors students make up a high percentage of total students in those sections.
The UIUC Campus Honors Program and the UT Plan II program, both small in size, have a far more structured curriculum that does not include contract or mixed section credit. Plan II students receive most of their honors credit through Plan II-specific courses, even in subjects such as physics. CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College students take honors-only classes offered by the honors college or by academic departments. The South Carolina Honors College offers an impressive range of honors-only classes of the same type, and only about 11 percent of sections are mixed. The program does not offer contract options.
Contract and mixed sections give students a lot of flexibility. Many of these courses are upper-division, so students can continue to receive honors credit throughout their time in the program, without having to wait for a specific honors-only course to open. It is difficult for many large honors programs to achieve four-year involvement without utilizing contract and mixed sections. Yet the South Carolina Honors College and the Macaulay Honors College at CUNY both have more than 2,000 honors students and also have strong four-year participation.
But based on statistical analyses of the data from all 31 programs, common predictive factors emerge: high university freshman retention rates; a substantial honors curriculum (30 credits or more); an emphasis on one completion option; and enhanced access to honors housing. Other positive factors include higher test scores, important to freshman retention rates; and smaller class sizes. Both of these factors have their greatest impact in programs with multiple, lower completion requirements.
As a variable in multiple regression, the impact of curriculum “flattens” because much of its effect appears in the variables for main option emphasis, honors grad rates, housing, separate honors application, and especially by participation if the latter is also a variable. The same flattening occurs with the impact of test scores, much of it expressed by the freshman retention variable.
Penn St Schreyer students
Programs looking for a “shorthand” method of assessing completion issues might find it in one overriding measure, which we call “participation”: the percentage of honors program members who occupy classroom seats in a given term. This participation rate correlates very significantly with honors completion, as one would expect. If an honors program has 1,000 members, and 1,000 honors credit classroom spaces are filled in a given term, then the participation percentage is 100. But because some honors students almost always take more than one honors class per term, it is common for participation percentages to be higher than 100. (If 1,000 members occupied 1,100 classroom spaces, then the participation rate would be 110 percent.)
The mean participation rate for all 31 programs was 129 percent. For the 16 programs with completion rates above 58 percent, the mean participation rate was 150 percent. For the 15 programs with lower completion rates, the mean participation rate was 108 percent.
For main option programs, the participate rate was 1.49; for multiple option programs, it was 1.11.
(So, a path to improvement might be >More Honors Housing >Emphasis on 30+ Credit Curriculum >Increased Freshman Retention >More Honors Class Sections and Disciplines>More Classroom Spaces Occupied>Higher Participation>Higher Completion Rate. This path, like most things in higher education, is impossible without funding. All honors deans and directors want to achieve high completion rates. The fact is that almost all honors programs do their best with the resources they have been dealt—and it is the rare honors student who does not benefit from a program even if he leaves after a year or two.)
Clemson University Honors Center
Out of 11 programs in our study with an honors curriculum requirement of 30 credits or higher, only one had a completion rate below 50 percent. The mean curriculum requirement for the six programs with a completion rate of 80 percent or higher was 37 credits. The overall mean for the 31 programs, when we averaged the multiple completion options for programs that offered them, was 27 credits.
One notable finding was that main option programs* with significantly stronger curriculum requirements (mean of 31.8 credits) had an average completion rate of 67.8 percent compared with an average rate of 48.5 percent for programs with multiple (lower) completion requirements (mean of 22.1 credits). This finding seems to contradict previous evidence and assumptions. We note that 24 of the 31 contributors to our study are either flagship or designated land-grant universities, but we have no data related to the differences between their programs and those at other types of institutions. The average U.S. News ranking of the 31 programs was 126, so the study was not limited to “public elites.” The highest ranking of any programs was 52. (In case anyone is curious: There is no significant correlation between the U.S. News rankings and honors completion rates.)
*(Included in main option programs are two programs that, while technically offering two options, have essentially the same total completion credit requirement for each option and have no mid-career option. In addition, option categories were also defined according to the curriculum requirements that honors programs offered for first-year entrants only, except we classified one program with a significant number of sophomore and junior transfers as a multiple option program.)
A precise calculation of curriculum requirements for multiple option programs would have included the proportion of honors students completing each option. In some multiple option programs more than 75 percent of students complete the highest option; in other programs fewer than 10 percent of students do so.
Although program size did not emerge as a clear predictor, the main option programs include four that have fewer than 1,000 honors students. Meanwhile, the smallest multiple option program has an enrollment of more than 1,300 students.
All 16 multiple option programs had an honors thesis option or requirement. The University of Arizona Honors College, the University of Arkansas Honors College, the Oregon State Honors College, and the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts, all with multiple options, do require an honors thesis for all options. Eleven of 15 main option programs had a thesis option, with nine listing a thesis as required. Regression models did not, however, establish that a thesis requirement or option had a significant impact on completion rates for the whole data set. But it appears that the combination of a significant thesis requirement along with relatively low university freshman retention rates (79-83 percent range) might contribute to low completion rates.
As for housing, the six programs with the highest completion rates offered .84 honors residence hall spaces per every first- and second-year honors student. The mean for all 31 programs was .53 residence hall spaces, or slightly more than one dorm space for first-year entrants only.
With respect to university freshman retention rates, the mean rate for the top six programs was 93.3 percent, while the overall mean freshman retention rate for 31 programs was 86.6 percent. Programs with completion rates at or above 58 percent had a mean university freshman retention rate of 88.9 percent; programs with lower completion rates had a mean university freshman retention rate of 84.2 percent. These bare statistics along with statistical models point clearly to freshman retention rates as being the most important institutional factor related to honors completion. They are co-linear with university graduation rates and almost as closely tied to the graduation rates for honors entrants, but are more significant than university graduation rates in relation to honors completion rates.
The top six programs had a mean SAT (ACT adjusted to SAT when necessary) of 1433, versus a mean score of 1406 for all 31 programs. The impact of test scores was, however, stronger for multiple option programs, though their mean test score was lower, at 1396. The mean test score for all main option programs was 1417, a difference of only 21 points. It appears, then, that the much stronger completion rates among main option programs as whole (67.1 percent versus 48.6 percent for multiple option programs) were not the result of proportionately higher test scores.
While all six of the programs with the highest completion rates were main option programs, the six programs with the lowest completion rates were all multiple option programs, with an average completion rate of 34.7 percent. For this group, the mean test score was 1358. Unlike the relationship of test scores to completion rates for the entire data set, it seems likely that, for this lowest subset, test scores would play a significant role; however, we could not confirm such a role statistically. Neither could we do so for the relationship of test scores and completion rates for the top subset.
We also calculate the ratio of enrolled individual honors students to all honors sections, and to total sections in 15 key academic disciplines. Both main and multiple option programs had about the same ratios. These ratios explain why the class size averages for main and multiple option programs are almost exactly the same (24 and 24.4, respectively). However, the absolute numbers of sections offered are much higher for main option programs because, with higher curriculum requirements, they have more students taking classes across all four years.
The six-year graduation rate for honors entrants in main option programs was 88.7 percent; for honors entrants in multiple option programs it was 85.2 percent. This difference would have an impact on university-wide graduation rates. For the six programs with the highest completion rates, the honors graduation rate averaged an impressive 91.3 percent; the honors graduation rate for the six programs with the lowest completion rates was almost eight points lower, at 83.5 percent. Freshman retention rates, test scores, and curriculum have the most impact on honors graduation rates, especially the first two factors, as one would expect. Freshman retention rates and honors graduation rates are remarkably similar.
It is somewhat unusual for honors completion rates to equal or exceed university graduation rates. Eleven of the 31 programs achieved such rates, according to our data. In alphabetical order, they are Arizona State’s Barrett Honors College; Colorado State Honors Program; CUNY Macaulay Honors College; University of Houston Honors College; University of Illinois Campus Honors Program; University of Kansas Honors Program; University of Nevada Reno Honors Program; University of South Carolina Honors College; Texas Tech Honors College; UT Austin Plan II Honors Program; and the Virginia Commonwealth University Honors College.
Texas Tech University
CHOICES, AND MORE CHOICES
The part of the hybrid structure that is related to the “large public research university” component is difficult to measure. Of course the resources allocated by the university make possible the scores of academic departments and sub-disciplines available for majors and fund the honors program, or programs, as well. Relatively generous funding allows for more honors sections, smaller classes, undergraduate research, and more housing, all of which are important to participation.
But the one characteristic of honors programs and the public universities in which they reside that receives little attention, in relation to completion rates, is the enormous range of choices that are available. An honors student at a major public university can choose to persevere through a demanding honors curriculum, or not; can choose to attend every home football game and party, or not; can choose among hundreds of degree plans and change to one that is too time-consuming to allow for honors work, or not; join eight or ten of the two hundred groups on campus, or not; and choose to live off-campus or with a non-honors friend, or not.
Their counterparts at elite private colleges do not have a hybrid structure that allows such a range of choices. Of course they can change majors, or, perhaps, change residence halls. They can also choose to spend too much time partying. But they have a smaller range of majors and college organizations from which to choose; and college sports often have limited appeal. And most do not experience large, sprawling campuses where one can feel overwhelmed, although honors programs certainly make big-campus life more collegial.
A larger range of choices, then, is an inherent piece of the “research university” component of the hybrid model, and in our opinion, it can contribute to lower honors completion rates. Some characteristics of a large public university campus (large class sizes, registration issues, social distractions) often cause parents and students to choose smaller, private colleges even at greater cost. Honors programs mitigate but do not eliminate the potential impact of these factors.
The real question is whether greater choice is ultimately negative or positive. All students make good choices and bad choices; college is often the place where they learn the first big lessons about choice. Clearly, however, students who are mature and focused enough to enjoy the large university experience without overindulgence are most likely to take full advantage of their honors opportunities.
Students should also be strongly motivated on their own if they are to undertake honors study and succeed. Their counterparts at elite private colleges must demonstrate their motivation repeatedly, not least during the application process. Our study shows that, for main option programs only, honors admission requirements that require an honors-specific application or credentials beyond those required for regular university admission do have an impact on completion rates.
Twelve of 15 main option programs require honors-specific application materials. Eleven of 16 multiple option programs do. (Some programs simply gather data from the admissions office and then issue invitations to top students already admitted to the university.)
PUBLIC HONORS VS. PRIVATE ELITES
The issue of honors completion is not only linked to the question: Do honors programs actually deliver? Another question often follows: How do honors programs really compare with private elite colleges?
Above we noted that honors participation, a major statistical (and common-sense) factor in predicting honors completion rates, is enhanced to a large extent by substantial curriculum requirements, frequently including a thesis. Assuming that a student is in a public honors program with both a strong curriculum requirement and a high completion rate, does that student graduate with an education comparable with that attained by a student at an elite private college?
The hybrid model carries with it the assumption that students at elite private colleges complete a rigorous curriculum that usually includes extensive undergraduate research and an honors thesis, and that the honors model should strive to do the same.
Like the perception that honors completion rates should approximate graduation rates at elite colleges, the perception that most or all students at elite colleges necessarily pursue an especially rigorous path is inaccurate.
Princeton is the only university in the Ivy League that requires an undergraduate thesis for graduation. Like the rest of the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, Duke, Swarthmore, Amherst, Williams, and other elite schools do not require a thesis. Reed, Chicago, and Bates do have a high number of students who complete an undergraduate thesis. If a student wants to graduate with Latin honors at many elite colleges, or especially to graduate magna cum laude or summa cum laude, or with departmental honors, only then would the student have to write a thesis.
Anecdotal information suggests that only 20-25 percent of students at elite colleges complete a thesis or equivalent project. In addition, grades at elite institutions hover around an A-minus average, bringing into question just how much many of them are actually challenged by the courses they take.
So, yes, given appropriate effort, a student in a public honors program with a strong curriculum requirement and a thesis should receive an equivalent education or, perhaps, even a better education than most students at a private elite college. One can argue, however, that the relatively few students pursuing high Latin or departmental honors at private elite schools can receive an even better education.
Finally, another comparison: Does the education of an honors student who is in a program with, say, a 55 percent completion rate, a 24-credit completion requirement, and no requirement for a thesis compare with that of his or her counterpart at a private elite college?
The private elite college will have a graduation rate about 5-10 points higher than the graduation rate of public university’s honors students. The student body at the private elite will, on the whole, be “smarter” but less diverse, less “real-life,” economically and otherwise. The honors student may well be challenged more by honors work than most students at the private elite are in regular classes. Both students may receive some financial aid, but at the private elite most of the aid is need-based or leaves funding gaps that could leave the student with large student loans. Meanwhile, the honors student and many of his classmates enjoy a large, renewable merit scholarship.
Attacks on the humanities and social sciences have increased since the Great Recession, even at a time when the critical thinking skills associated with these disciplines are urgently needed to navigate the sometimes bizarre world of facts, alternative facts, distortions, and outright lies.
Indeed, with the decline of humanities departments, we might be nearing the time when honors colleges and programs will be the focal point of liberal arts education in many public universities. (Below is a discussion of what the nation’s largest honors college is doing to promote the humanities and “civic education.”)
The economic downturn along with rising college tuition costs forced many parents and prospective college students to zero in on courses of study that provide near-term financial results and security. The trend is so strong that, recently, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point announced a plan to eliminate 13 humanities and social science majors.
These include English (excluding English for teacher certification); French; geography and geosciences; German; history (excluding social science for teacher certification); philosophy; political science; sociology; and Spanish.
Studies consistently show that voters with college degrees turn out in greater numbers than those with lower levels of education, but among college-educated voters it is likely that the type of coursework taken in college is an additional contributing factor to greater and more perceptive participation in civic life.
In the higher ed world, this link between education and civic engagement is known as the “civic education hypothesis.” A recent paper by Jacob Andrew Hester of the University of Alabama and Kari Lynn Besing of Indiana University argues persuasively that honors seminars, notably in the humanities and social sciences, “can and often do impart the civic skills that, the civic education hypothesis posits, enable political participation and lead to increased involvement in politics and civic life.”
Many public universities are unable to offer small, discussion-focused classes in these disciplines. The authors contend that larger lecture sections do not develop “the classic skills associated with politics: language, rhetoric, public speaking, debate, and critical thinking.” Students can, however, develop these skills in an honors college or program that offers small seminar sections in Gen Ed courses.
Humanities and social science departments have for centuries sought to inculcate these “classic skills.” For years they have been losing faculty; now, with the elimination of majors, more faculty will be cut and course sections will be reduced, probably leading to larger classes with no opportunity for discussion. Where will these disciplines, with their manifold intersections, survive in a format conducive to civic education? Honors colleges and programs–and the mission is critical.
“Honors education and the humanities share core values, including the importance of deep, sustained reading. Students of history, literature, and philosophy confront complex and demanding texts and develop sophisticated methods of analyzing these texts….Both humanities and honors value not only high levels of reading skill but thoughtful responses to texts and an ability to integrate them into broader knowledge, reaching toward not just learning but wisdom. Such habits run counter to the mindless consumption of infobits.”
Some of the brightest students are math, science, and engineering majors, and their numbers are on the rise. Their analytical skills are seldom in question–indeed, they are often amazing. But the classes in their majors offer little discussion and, as Hester points out, “Math courses [for example] rarely involve discussion or conceptualizing social issues, and very rarely if ever do math instructors connect the development of mathematical skills to political discourse.”
On the other hand, Hester and Besing write, the “University of Alabama (UA) Honors College has an explicit goal of developing ‘agents of social change.’ At the heart of the honors experience are three-hour, interdisciplinary, honors seminars for no more than fifteen students. To graduate with honors, UA students must complete no fewer than six hours of seminar credit, but often students complete more.
“In contrast to the traditional academic lecture, the skills developed in a seminar are uniquely suited for the development and application of citizenship behaviors. In particular, UA honors seminars stress discussion, reflection, writing, and debate, providing students the opportunity to practice each behavior in a controlled environment. Through the seminar experience, honors students are expected to engage the skill sets that produce interest and competence in public affairs more frequently than non-honors students.”
To test their hypothesis that honors programs can promote civic education, Hester and Besing surveyed University of Alabama Honors College students to answer the following question: “To what extent has your experience at this institution contributed to your knowledge, skills, and personal development in the following areas: Voting in local, state, or national elections?”
The conclusion: “Students who engage in a curriculum with more opportunities to develop civic skills are more likely to respond that their institution has contributed to their interest in voting. This finding lends support for the civic engagement hypothesis within the context of an honors education. Specifically, it suggests that students in the UA Honors College are more likely to respond that their education has contributed to their interest in voting. Similarly, our findings suggest that the amount of reading and writing in their curriculum positively correlates with students’ perception that their education has had an impact on their interest in voting.”
“Our argument is that seminar courses are likely to contribute to an honors student’s interest in participating in politics, but we do not believe that honors electives have the same effect. For example, an elective honors lecture course in accounting is likely to be more enriching than a non-honors version of the course but is not likely to build political skills in the same way that a seminar does.”
“On one side of the debate, policymakers, employers, and administrators extol the benefits of a STEM education, e .g ., technological innovation, expansion of research, and the financial payoffs of a labor force with robust science and mathematics skills. On the other side, classical theories of higher education argue that a college degree is about more than the development of a professional skill set on the way to a career; it is about the development of each individual’s ability to function as a citizen in a democratic society. An honors education provides a unique opportunity for higher education institutions to satisfy both sides of the debate, proving sufficient rigor for STEM students while also grounding students in the classical purposes of higher education.”
Each year, we provide an update of Goldwater scholarships won by public university students, and public universities did extraordinarily well in 2017, winning 128 out of 240 scholarships awarded this year. The percentage of scholars is down slightly from 2016, when 136 out of 252 scholars were from state universities. This year, there were also 307 honorable mentions.
The total number of scholarships has declined from 260 awarded in 2015, to 252 in 2016, and now to the 240 awarded in 2017.
The University of Alabama and Iowa State led publics with four scholars each, the maximum for any one school.
The following universities had three winners each: UAB, College of Charleston, Cincinnati, Ohio State, South Carolina, Tennessee, UT Dallas, Washington State, and UW Madison.
And those with two winners each are: Clemson, George Mason, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Miami Ohio, Michigan, UN Omaha, UN Reno, New College Florida, New Mexico, UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Charlotte, Oregon State, Stony Brook, SUNY Buffalo, SUNY Geneseo, UC Santa Barbara, Utah State, and West Virginia.
It is notable that more publics that are not flagships are seeing success with Goldwater awards. Two thoughts on this development: (1) honors colleges, emphasizing undergrad research, are growing in these colleges and (2) the faculties at these schools often have credentials than, in past decades, would have earned them an appointment at an elite university. These are reasons that New York Times columnist Frank Bruni can write an important book titled Where You Go Is Not Who You Will Be.It helps to explain why Rhodes Scholars can now come from schools such as UW Eau Claire and UT Chattanooga.
The 2017 list of multiple winners above does include schools that are Goldwater leaders over time, with more than 40 awards total as of 2017: Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Georgia, Indiana, UNC Chapel Hill, South Carolina, and Alabama.
We provide this update each year because Goldwater scholars are all still undergraduates, and their selection is an indication of the undergraduate research opportunities at their universities. The Goldwater Scholarship is and amazing predictor of postgraduate success.
Here’s evidence provided by the Goldwater Foundation: “Recent Goldwater Scholars have been awarded 89 Rhodes Scholarships, 127 Marshall Awards, 145 Churchill Scholarships, 96 Hertz Fellowships and numerous other distinguished awards like the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.”
“The Goldwater Scholars were selected based on academic merit from a field of 1,286 natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering students nominated by the campus representatives from among 2,000 colleges and universities nationwide. Of those reporting, 133 of the Scholars are men, 103 are women, and virtually all intend to obtain a Ph.D. as their highest degree objective. Twenty-two Scholars are mathematics majors, 153 are science and related majors, 51 are majoring in engineering, and 14 are computer science majors. Many of the Scholars have dual majors in a variety of mathematics, science, engineering, and computer science.”
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.
After an extended period during which more and more students have felt the need–regardless of personal interest and aptitude–to major in business, engineering, or computer-related fields, the liberal arts, especially the humanities, have faced declining enrollment.
The impact that this trend has had on personal growth and enlightened participation in civic life is evident, given the tone and outcome of the presidential election.
In the meantime, several prominent public universities have endured attacks on their humanities departments and commitment to learning for learning’s sake, most notably UT Austin, Florida universities, and, very recently, UW Madison. Most states have dramatically reduced financial support for their universities; some regents have used the real or manufactured budget crisis as a pretext for attacking non-vocational disciplines.
But the liberal arts and, yes, the core humanities that are essential to the liberal arts, have survived in public honors colleges and programs. Some students express resentment that, in order to be in an honors program, they must take a series of interdisciplinary seminars and electives in the humanities. Under pressure from parents or highly focused on their chosen vocational discipline, they want “to get on with it” and reach a point where they can start making real money and pay back those student loans.
This is understandable. But honors educators know that almost every bright student is in many ways unformed and searching for paths of meaning in their lives. One course in history, or philosophy, or literature, or maybe in religious studies or film, can guide a student toward a lifetime of serious inquiry, self reflection, and greater compassion for others. These and other courses in the liberal arts reinforce the application of informed judgment to facts that are often contradictory or in flux.
But one other major–business–could likely benefit even more from greater exposure to the liberal arts and, again, to the humanities
Recent research shows that “critical thinking,” measured after adjusting for entrance test scores, shows the greatest gains for students in the liberal arts. Engineering and technology students have high raw entrance test scores and strong critical thinking ability, but after adjusting for the effect of the high test scores, their critical thinking skills are relatively lower.
Business majors do not receive high raw or adjusted scores in critical thinking. Given that a plurality of bachelor’s degrees are awarded in business subjects, this is a matter of significant concern.
English is the discipline most offered by honors programs. This is so because many of the required English classes have a heavy writing component, often associated with the study of rhetoric. In these classes the humanities and vocational mastery come together in a way, for the most successful and most fulfilled professionals often have outstanding communication skills and a heightened sensitivity to the thoughts and needs of others.
So what are the “liberal arts”? The answer to this question varies, but here we will include the following disciplines, all of which are traditional core offerings in liberal arts colleges (humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences):
Humanities: English, history, philosophy, fine arts, foreign languages, religious studies, film, classics. Sciences: math, biology, chemistry, physics, geology. Social Sciences: sociology, anthropology, gender studies, psychology, communications, political science, economics, and geography.
(One can see that many of these can be, and often are, “vocational” in themselves.)
Using the above as our “liberal arts,” we used data gathered for our most recent book, Inside Honors, which included 4,460 honors sections. Of these, we found that 59% were in the liberal arts, not counting interdisciplinary seminars, which accounted for another 26% of sections. Most of these seminars had a humanities focus, so about 85% of honors sections were in the liberal arts.
By discipline, English had the highest percentage of sections, even when sections in business, engineering, and technology are included. Math and business disciplines combined had about the same number of sections as English.
The STEM disciplines are strongly represented, however, accounting for 25% of honors sections. (But the science and math sections counted here are also part of the overall liberal arts group.)
Engineering and technology, considered separately, make up 8% of honors sections. Admittedly, the “regular” courses in these disciplines are usually rigorous enough in themselves.
Not all of the humanities are strongly represented, however, with classics, film, and religious studies combined counting for only 1.4% of honors sections. In fairness, the classics do feature prominently in many interdisciplinary seminars.
Editor’s Note: Our thanks to Kendall Curlee, Director of Communications for the University of Arkansas Honors College, for assistance with this post.
One of the major strengths of honors colleges and programs is that they make undergraduate research opportunities a priority. Increasingly, early contact with distinguished professors is yielding not only better chances for entry to graduate and professional schools but also success with publication in prestigious academic journals.
At the University of Arkansas Honors College, Dr. Roger E. Koeppe II, a distinguished professor of chemistry, has now collaborated with several present and former honors college students on research projects that have led to publication.
His mentoring has been so successful that some of the students have themselves collaborated on more than one published paper.
Research That Could Lead Help the Fight with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease
“A University of Arkansas research team shed new light on the molecular properties that drive the nervous system. Their work was recently published in Biochemistry, one of the top journals in the field. Kelsey Sparks, an alumna of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and the Honors College, who is currently pursuing a medical degree at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, led the research effort as an undergraduate, working for three years on what became her capstone honors thesis.
“Sparks is the first author on the article, giving her primary credit for the discoveries. Other undergraduate coauthors were Fulbright and Honors College alumna and Sturgis Fellow Rebekah Langston, who currently holds a research position at the National Institutes of Health, and Renatra Gist, an alumna of Tennessee State University who completed a summer National Science Foundation-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates at the U of A.
“Several of their findings were surprising: for example, some of the amino acids that could form hydrogen bonds with membrane lipids caused their host helices to move faster than their non-hydrogen bonding counterparts.
“You would think that hydrogen bonds would slow things down, since water is slower than gas,” Koeppe said. The team also discovered that peptide rotations are sensitive to changes in the thickness of membranes. The paper contributes to knowledge of the molecular properties that allow the nervous system to work, and ultimately could contribute to the understanding and treatment of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
“We’re working at the first level – the physics of it,” Koeppe cautioned. “We’re not developing medical products, but we’re trying to improve the basic understanding. The remarkable thing is that these undergraduate students were making discoveries in such a complex area. They’re at the forefront in this field.”
And More Work in a Related Area…
“A University of Arkansas research team has published a paper in ChemBioChem, a top European journal of chemical biology, based on groundbreaking experiments led by undergraduate honors student Armin Mortazavi. The paper contributes to the understanding of the molecular properties of membrane proteins, which play critical roles in cell signaling, both for diseased states and basic biological functions.
“It could be useful in understanding how proteins aggregate, which is characteristic of some neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s – but that’s long down the line at this point,” Mortazavi said. “Our main purpose is to understand how they interact in the body.”
“Mortazavi, from Hot Springs, is an honors chemistry and physics double major, a Bodenhamer Fellow, and the recipient of the Goldwater Scholarship. He is listed as first author on the article, giving him primary credit for performing the experiments that led to the discoveries.
“Mortazavi’s research builds on earlier work by honors student Kelsey Sparks, who studied the role aromatic rings play in the movement of the same family of peptides. Sparks was the first author on a paper published in 2014 in Biochemistry and is a coauthor on this paper.”
The Work to Understand Neurodegenerative Diseases Continues….
“Jordana Thibado‘s honors research in Roger Koeppe’s lab began in her freshman year, and has paid off with her publication as first author in Biochemistry, one of the leading journals in its field.
Thibado is now pursuing a doctoral degree in physiology, biophysics and systems biology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University’s medical campus in New York City. In addition to Koeppe, a Distinguished Professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, coauthors include U of A doctoral student Ashley Martfeld and research associate professor Denise Greathouse.
“Upon completion of her doctorate, Thibado hopes to find a faculty position in biophysics or biochemistry and launch her own lab. Publishing research in Biochemistry will help her advance that goal: “It definitely felt great, especially after putting in four years of work, to see the research culminate in publication,” she said.
Editor’s Note: Thanks to honors Deans and Directors from across the country, we received more data than ever before in 2016. Most of the data appear in our new book, but periodically we will report on other discoveries that we did not have time to include.
We have written about honors classes several times, having reported on average class sizes and the various types of honors class sections–honors seminars, honors-only classes in the disciplines, mixed honors classes (honors and non-honors students), and contract sections, in which honors students do extra work in a regular class for honors credit.
Before presenting data that show the percentage of class work honors students do in the various class types, here is a brief recap on the average class sizes of honors sections, based on actual, detailed data from 50 major honors programs:
Honors-only class section size= 19.0 students
Mixed sections for honors credit= 51.1 students
Contract sections for honors credit= 60.1 students
OVERALL average size of class sections for honors credit= 26.3 students
But now for the additional, unpublished data.
Since class sizes vary significantly according to the type of class section, here is a summary of the percentage of classroom time that honors students spend in the different section types:
In 22 of the 50 programs we rated, all honors credit sections were “honors-only” sections (no mixed or contract sections).
Across all 50 programs, 83.1% of enrollment time was in honors-only sections.
13.6% of enrollment time was in mixed sections that included both honors and non-honors students. Many of these sections had separate honors-only breakout or lab components.
The remaining 5.1% of enrollment time was in contract sections, in which students in regular classes had to complete extra work for honors credit.
Honors-only classes may be seminars that are generally interdisciplinary, or more discipline-specific classes.
Our findings show that 45.8% of honors-only classes are seminars are interdisciplinary sections, which are typically offered through the honors college or program itself.
The remaining 54.2% of honors-only classes are centered on the academic disciplines, many offered directly by the academic departments.
After three months of analyzing data, we are almost at the point of rating at least 50 honors programs, writing their profiles, and adding another 10 or so summary reviews (unrated).
What I can say now is that there will be some significant changes–and some surprises. We are running behind schedule, but I still hope for publication by late September.
Here’s why. The 2014 edition was a great improvement over the 2012 book. In 2012, I was so focused on the importance of honors curriculum and completion requirements, along with the glitz of prestigious scholarships (Rhodes, Marshall, Goldwater, etc.) that the first effort failed to drill deeply into the complexities of honors programs.
The 2014 edition moved the ball forward–about halfway downfield, or more–because I was able to obtain more information from honors deans and directors. I also studied class section data online and derived a lot of useful information about honors-only classes, including average class sizes and a general idea of the disciplines offered.
For the 2016 edition, I knew going in that I needed far more detailed information from the programs themselves to develop precise measures for all class sections (including mixed and contract sections). Fortunately, I have been working with that much better information. The result is that instead of listing the number of honors classes in, say, math, the 2016 edition will report how many sections there are in relation to the total number of honors students.
This approach will have a dramatic impact in some cases. For example, say that Program A has 4 honors math sections might have looked good in the 2014 edition; but if Program A has 1400 enrolled honors students, 4 sections do not look very strong.
Another difference will be in the rating for honors class size. In 2014, the most accurate ratings were for honors-only class sizes. But the fact is that many programs offer much of their honors credit via mixed and contract sections. Accurately measuring the class sizes for these sections is extremely difficult when using only the online data. Indeed, there is no section information about contract sections online. Approximately 60 percent of programs allow credit for honors contracts (basically, doing extra work in a regular section for honors credit). A few have use contracts extensively. The new edition will list the average size of contract and mixed sections (honors and non-honors students in the same class).
Finally, another major difference that will have an impact in 2016 is that the rating for honors housing will have a new dimension: one-third of the rating will now be based on the availability of housing space, in addition to the amenities and dorm layout.