Does Participation in an Honors Program Lower GPAs?

A recent paper by a prominent honors director and associate cites three main concerns of parents and students about participating in an honors program:

“They and/or their parents believe that honors classes at the university level require more work than non-honors courses, are more stressful, and will adversely affect their self-image and grade point average.”

Some students, the authors write, “are likely basing their belief on the experience they had with Advanced Placement (AP) classes in their high schools. Although AP classes are not specifically designed to be more work or more difficult, at their worst they can be little more than that.”

The authors of the paper, “The Effect of Honors Courses on Grade Point Averages, ” are Dr. Art Spisak, Director of Honors at Iowa the University of Iowa and Suzanne Carter Squires, a Churchill Scholar and former Director of Assessment for Iowa honors. Dr. Spisak is also the current President of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC).

As the title states, the authors focused on whether honors participation does in fact lower GPAs, probably the overriding concern of parents and students.

After reviewing and citing previous related studies and conducting two in-depth studies of their own at a large public research university, the authors conclude that “the findings show that the perception of honors courses as adversely affecting GPAs is invalid.”

The previous studies indicated that honors and non-honors students of equal measured ability had about the same GPAs or the honors students had higher GPAs in the first year and about the same GPAs going forward.

An important finding of one study also showed that honors students have “higher self-concepts than do high-ability students not participating in an honors program.”

The first study by Spisak and Squires “began with a cohort of 786 students that was unusual in its makeup and, for that reason, especially apt for the purpose. All 786 students were part of an honors program at a large, public, R1 university. They all had earned their way into the program via a minimum composite ACT/ SAT score of 29/1300 and a high school GPA of at least 3.8. Once in the program, they had to maintain a university GPA of 3.33 to maintain membership.”

“Of the original cohort of 786 honors students, the study considered only the 473 students who had remained in the program for at least two years.” This would appear to indicate a low retention rate, but the program at the time automatically enrolled students who met the stats requirements and many dropped out. Most honors programs use invitation-only approaches now.

“The findings from this first study were that the mean GPA of honors students who took honors classes (3.74) was statistically the same as that of honors students who took no honors courses (3.70).

The second study by Spisak and Squires differed from the first in that it compared honors students’ GPAs in their honors classes to their GPAs for all their classes. The first study, in contrast, compared GPAs of one group of honors-eligible students who took honors courses to those of another group of honors-eligible students who had not taken honors courses.

The results showed that “honors students’ GPAs in their honors courses are statistically the same as their GPAs in all their classes. Thus, the conclusion for the second study is the same as for the first study: honors courses do not adversely affect the GPAs of honors students.”

So…if honors students in honors classes have the same GPAs (or even higher) that students of equal ability in non-honors classes, can one conclude that honors classes are not competitive or demanding?

The likely answer: honors classes typically cover more material and in greater depth than non-honors classes, but smaller class sizes, greater engagement with professors, and encouragement or competition from peers create more interest and focus.

W. Virginia President E. Gordon Gee: ‘Never Mistake an Elite [Honors] Education for an Elitist One’

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts that will review or comment on papers published by The National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC).

E. Gordon Gee is the current president of West Virginia University and the former president of Ohio State. He is a man of many opinions, well known in the higher education community.

“When honors colleges deliver on their promises, they are being anti-elitist,” Gee writes in his article “Access, not Exclusion: Honors at a Public Institution.”

“I know that many honors colleges and programs struggle with perceptions of elitism on their campuses, but we should never mistake an elite education for an elitist one,” Gee says.

Citing New York Times columnist Frank Bruni’s much discussed piece, “A Prudent College Path,” Gee says public honors colleges (and programs) offer a place for highly talented students who have either declined admission to expensive private elites or have been denied such admission because of capricious admissions decisions.

“A lower price tag is one reason. Here is another outlined in Bruni’s column: honors programs promise a more inclusive environment of devoted, highly driven students within an even more diverse campus population.

“The obvious way that honors colleges are about access is that they give individual students access to the kind of educational opportunities and environment that they might not have been able to afford otherwise.”

But greater access for talented students isn’t the whole story. Gee writes that “their presence enriches the entire campus and our state.”

“When we bring more honors students to our campus, we are raising the level of discussion in every classroom, not just honors classes.

“When we have more students who know how to balance working smart and playing smart, we are helping teach all of our students how to work and play smarter.

“When we have more students engaged in going first in the classroom, we create an environment where more are encouraged to go out into the world with boldness and confidence.

“When we keep talented students at our land-grant universities, we are also keeping them in our state, contributing not just to the university’s academic mission but also to its mission to serve the citizens of the state.”

Gee writes that the WVU Honors College enrolls more than 2,200 students, including 739 entrants in 2015-2016–up from 580 the previous academic year. Under the leadership of honors college Dean Kenneth P. Blemings, the new students begin making their contributions as soon as they arrive on campus.

“All of them participated in a day of service that had them giving back to the community that they were just joining. That kind of service is good for them and for our city.

“The honors commitment to service takes place not just in one day or at one place. Honors students on campuses across the country are providing great service to their communities.

“Many honors students at WVU are not going to spend just four years giving back; many are going to stay in our state and give back to the community for years to come.”

Honors Student Reflects on Experiences at National Conference

By Jini Curry, University of West Florida Honors Program

Being part of honors is not just about being smart or making good grades; it is also about learning leadership skills and growing as a student and a person. Coming into college I never realized that one program could have such a lasting impact on my life.

The opportunities that I have been given as an honors student at the University of West Florida are unlimited. As I freshman I went to the 46th annual NCHC in Phoenix, Arizona and I was hooked. Therefore, when the word was spread about proposals for this year’s NCHC in Boston, Massachusetts, I could not pass up the chance. The experiences I had during my stay in Boston are more than what I could have ever imagined, and the passion that it lit inside of me is unstoppable.

Preparing for a conference is not the world’s easiest task, but with the help of my other group members we put together a presentation that we felt would be worthwhile for us to talk about and beneficial for others at the conference to hear, and we went with it. Walking into our presentation room Saturday afternoon and seeing it filled with people was overwhelming, knowing that they were all there to see what our program was doing and how we were running things–that was nerve-racking to say the least. After we presented the questions started flowing in and that is when the real fun began.

For me, one of the greatest parts of the NCHC conference is the collaboration that comes from attending sessions. A question is posed, and then it is discussed. People from all over the United States and the Netherlands get to tell others what their program is doing, how they are running things at the institution, and even the struggles they are going through. At that moment you are able to see what NCHC is truly all about. It is about developing leaders and then teaching them how to work together to come up with a solution. Through feedback from other institutions, you are given an innovative idea of how to fix something that may not be working in yours.

I must admit from a student’s perspective NCHC is not just about the collaboration and the sessions—it is also about the friendships. Going to different sessions, often separated from the people that came from your institution, creates some awkwardness. After you get past that initial “should I talk to the person sitting next to me” worry, the doors open for conversation and oftentimes friendships. The passion that is in a room of Honors students is mind blowing. Everyone is eager to talk about their plans and what they are doing, and if not, someone is there to bring them out of their comfort zone.

For me, talking to random people is not a difficult task and I use that to my advantage. Talking to people is how connections are created and the NCHC conference gives us that opportunity. Whether it is at a session, reflections after the plenary speaker finishes, or even at the many student activities, you are bound to encounter someone that you do not know. You gain the courage to talk to them and the next thing you know, a new friendship is developing.

Overall the 47th annual NCHC conference was an experience that will never be replaced. I made connections with other institutions, I created friendships with people in many different states, I collaborated with others on Honors related topics, I learned skills that would enhance my leadership, and my passion for Honors grew greater. The experiences that come from attending the NCHC conference far outweigh the strife that it takes to get there. Never think that you have nothing to bring to the table if you attend or that the process is too difficult, because if you do believe that, you are missing out on the chance of a lifetime.

NCHC Conference: UC Irvine Develops Exemplary Transfer Option for CC Honors Students

Already recognized as a leader among major public universities for the quality of its Campuswide Honors Program (CHP), the University of California-Irvine has also made a success of the “honors to honors” program that helps to guide high-performing community college students to CHP.

Before honors to honors, the number of community college transfers into CHP was extremely low, in the range of one or two students a year.  Now, 20 to 30 community college honors students are welcomed into CHP, and the best news of all is that they perform as well as, or in some areas better than, the “native” students in the program.

Successful transfer students into CHP must be nominated by their community college honors program.  At first, the CHP pilot honors to honors program had partnerships with only eight community colleges in California, but now the number has risen to 14.  To be nominated by one of these institutions, students must have a 3.7 g pa.  Then, since they are nominated in the middle of a term, CHP does an additional review when the student’s final grades for the term are available.

The honors transfer students fall into two basic types: students who are about the same age as juniors who entered the program as freshmen, and students who are older or “non-traditional” students.

CHP has tried with varying results to find ways to connect the freshman entrants with the transfer students, especially with the non-traditional students, but there can be significant differences between the groups.  On the other hand, the transfer students are themselves a part of the honors experience for freshman entrants because of the special experiences the non-traditional students have had.

Over the past few years, CHP has learned that the factors below are often involved:

–The quarter system can be confusing to transfer students who have been on the semester system.

–Study and writing skills for some transfer students may not be fully developed.

–The family responsibilities of transfer students are often very demanding.

–Transfer students may be more stressed, upset, or even depressed.

–They are also more likely to have job responsibilities.

Yet despite these differences, Lisa Roetzel, associate director of CHP, says that transfers perform as well and graduate as promptly as freshmen entrants, and they tend to be even more receptive to the thesis requirement, in part because many have already made plans for graduate school.  Transfer students also take full advantage of the increased faculty contacts afforded by CHP.

CHP advisor Mary Gillis has created a special schedule for transfer advising, including the use of paid peer advisors who are successful transfer students themselves.  The special advising also includes GRE preparation and counseling for degree planning.

The first semester advising is generally focused more on support, encouragement, and efforts to make the transfer students a part of the overall honors community.  Transfers are eligible for honors housing and priority registration, just like freshman entrants.

Since about half of UCI’s students now are first-generation college students, the matchup with outstanding community college scholars may be more feasible, as many of them too are the first members of their families to attend college.

One result of UCI’s close partnership with community colleges is that many of the best honors students from the two-year schools are choosing UCI honors instead of honors or regular admission at other UC campuses.

NCHC Conference: A Student Board of Directors Candidate Speaks Out

Planning a national conference in Boston, the birthplace of American Independence, allowed the National Collegiate Honors Council to go with their instincts and tie many conference presentations to the individual and independent character of honors programs–and honors students.

One such student is Riley Cook from the University of Iowa Honors Program, who is a candidate for the two-year term as student representative on the national board of the NCHC.  It is fitting that the NCHC would include students on its board, and the presence of 600 honors students at the annual conference attests to the interest and commitment to honors students.

We ran into Riley at the conference and realized that his outlook corresponded closely with the overall theme of the meeting: challenging structures in higher education. Other articles about the conference have addressed the commitment of the honors community to insist that a high-level college education must go far beyond the acquisition of specialized skills to include an intellectual focus on “the things that matter” the most in life: a deeper understanding of ourselves and our relation to other human beings and institutions.

Or, to use Riley Cook’s own words, honors “should not just be something to put on a resume; it should be a medium through which students explore their passions on a personal level with faculty and fellow students to their full extent. My main concern is what honors can do intrinsically for students to enrich their academics rather than just be a series of requirements to fulfill.”

Now if you look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, you will see the following: “Intrinsic value has traditionally been thought to lie at the heart of ethics. Philosophers use a number of terms to refer to such value. The intrinsic value of something is said to be the value that that thing has ‘in itself,’ or ‘for its own sake,’ or ‘as such,’ or ‘in its own right.'”

Intrinsic values are what we discover; instrumental knowledge is what we receive.  Honors education is about discovery.

Riley expressed concern to us that many institutions lack the commitment to honors education that would allow faculty to teach the smaller discussion courses that promote this kind of discovery.  The reason: faculty “productivity”is a metric used by administrators–and legislators–to assess how efficient departments are, productivity typically reflects only the quantity of students taught, and not the content or individual character of courses.

“Unfortunately,” Riley said, “the quantity of students in the classroom is considered more financially worthwhile than investing in the quality of personalized honors discussion.”

Riley sees this as shortsighted.   “I spoke with a business student in honors at [another] university who informed me that an honors program did not always exist there. The lack of honors directly affected enrollment, significantly enough to necessitate the establishment of such a program.” In other words, honors attracts more students, and these students, in turn, raise the overall quality and perception of the university.

Riley also sees the importance of honors programs in generating support from honors alumni who can become mentors and, in some cases, donors to the institution.

“Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from honors opportunities,” he said. “By offering research opportunities, professors are able to work with valuable research assistants. Even collaborating on a student’s independent research project could influence their research or at least deepen their knowledge of a certain topic in their field. In a university setting, professors are learners, too, and the students they collaborate with may become valuable partners in their field in the years to come.”

After hearing what Riley has had to say, it should be no surprise that honors faculty frequently find themselves in the role of partners or facilitators, and less as the intellectual masters who deliver wisdom from on high.  They, too, engage in the process of discovery.








NCHC Conference: The ‘Revolution’ in Learning Is about ‘Things that Matter’

Taking inspiration from the prominent role of Boston in the America Revolution, faculty from the University of Maine who made presentations at the National Collegiate Honors Council annual conference in Boston sought to define what makes honors education “revolutionary” in contrast to many college courses that have a more instrumental focus.

One answer: the revolution occurs within bright students who are seriously evaluating their beliefs in light of great texts and new experiences, and who share their thoughts, concerns, and criticisms with faculty and with other students who are going through the same process.

Most of what they discuss is the result of a process one professor referred to as “thinking hard about things that matter.”  Ironically, classes that explore and challenge religious beliefs or explore humanity’s relationship with nature or reflect on previous cultural and political revolutions are often dismissed by those who believe that instrumental, or vocational, learning is the thing that matters.

What, more specifically, can honors learning mean for a student.  One young woman in the Maine honors college said that she had come to the university as a “diehard relativist” who was convinced that there was no such thing as objective truth.  Now at the end of her honors career—but not her intellectual commitment—her vocational interests may not have changed, but her basic attitude toward the world—her values—have been dramatically affected; she has discovered, if not absolute truth, then true conviction.  To what extent would this have occurred in a business management class, or a calculus class?

Is this a risk, not only to students, but to parents who send their young men and women to college?  Yes, but honors education embraces an element of risk, subscribing to the idea that young people grow by putting themselves “out there” in the company of peers who are part of the same process of internal and mutual discovery.

Successful honors instructors, therefore, have to extend themselves, to join in the effort to “push the envelope beyond the instrumental.”

One Maine economics professor took on the challenge of teaching an honors course on how we define nature, in the process leaving the “dismal science” behind him along with some of his accustomed hard logic.  Before he was done, he and his class had followed Thoreau’s path in the Maine woods, subjected themselves to an orienteering challenge, and emerged from both the literal and figurative forest of humanity’s relationship with nature filled with new questions, new insights, and deeper understanding.

A professor who taught a course about the Sixties’ revolution found that his students experienced the hope and optimism of “the movement,” saw its impact (especially on white Americans), recognized the “I have a dream” speech of Martin Luther King as one of the most eloquent expressions of the times—but then had to come to terms with the disillusionment that followed that particular revolution.

What does this teach students who are thinking hard about things that matter?  They may come to believe that each generation needs to dream its own dreams, let them emerge, learn from them, and accept a due portion of disappointment themselves.  It may not be calculus, but it really matters.


NCHC Annual Conference: High-Impact Programming for Honors Residence Facilities

Dr. Lynne Goodstein has a wealth of experience in honors education, having directed the program at the University of Connecticut for many years.  The UConn program has more than 1,600 students, and about half of them live in honors residence halls; another quarter live elsewhere on campus.

Even though Dr. Goodstein is leaving honors to return to the classroom, she shared her insights into developing effective, high-impact programs for honors residences and facilities during a session at the National College Honors Council annual conference in Boston.

Below please see her “top ten” recommendations.  Parents and prospective students should find these useful as they visit honors colleges and programs across the country.

  1. The programming for residence halls should have clear goals and learning objectives.
  2. Variety is extremely important; the “menu” should include community service, along with social, academic, and professional development and opportunities to meet with faculty.
  3. The programs should be tailored to match the changing needs of students across four years.  This means offering a wide variety of activities in the first two years, including many social programs to develop a sense of community.  During the last two years, programming becomes more closely-related to specific professional and academic interests.
  4. Programming benefits from partnerships with cultural centers on and off campus, with academic departments, and with the university office of residential life.
  5. Residential assistants (RA’s) should be well-trained and understand the connections between their programs and honors goals.
  6. Incentives to students are important, but should not be excessive.  Students should not be required to attend too many programs—about five in the first two years is recommended.
  7. Honors staff need to focus on online and other means of communicating meeting the topics, dates, and times of program events..
  8. Honors staff should solicit and read student response forms for use in future planning.

At UConn, one of the most successful programs is the “Lunch Bunch,” a series of luncheon meetings during which honors students have informal discussions with faculty, whom they get to know on a more personal basis.

The Honors in the Arts programming allows students to develop or expand an interest in the arts and meet new people in small groups.  Book clubs are another way to expand student interest and promote positive associations.

Leadership programs and alumni presentations tailored to specific majors and professions are also
successful and help to sustain ties between generations of students.

NCHC Annual Conference: The ‘Ecology’ of Honors Teaching

The theme of the 2012 conference of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) being held in Boston is “challenging structures” in higher education, and at the center of that challenge is the honors focus on the “ecology” of undergraduate instruction: the critical and sometimes difficult balance among faculty, students, and the pursuit of knowledge that brings them together.

In a session devoted to honors instruction, a thoughtful and expressive panel of honors professionals emphasized that learning at the highest level requires challenging themselves and their students to see the acquisition of knowledge as a dynamic, adventurous process that goes far beyond the ingestion of basic facts.

The goal, according to Michael Doran, director of the honors program at the University of South Alabama, is to work with students so that they can gain confidence, accept risks, and become passionate about “inquiry and the creation of new knowledge…students rise to higher expectations, and that message is transferred to other students on campus.”

The words “creativity” and “reflection” and “inquiry” were prominent in the discussion.  John Zubizarreta of Columbia College in South Carolina noted that the “importance of reflection…is important for all students, but for honors students it’s indispensable.”

One reason: honors portfolios, when they are in fact used in honors programs, collect the most important elements of a student’s experience–major papers, significant projects, notes, lists of books and their significance–all of which connect the student to accomplishments and aspirations, and clarify goals.

At Texas A&M, according to Jon Kolinek, associate director of the honors program, students in living/learning communities meet to discuss what they have learned, especially in first-year courses and experiences, and then reflect on how the first year has reinforced their initial goals or caused them to consider different options.

The use of portfolios, discussions, and focused reflection is not unique to students.  At Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University, a formal mentoring program involving current honors faculty with prospective honors instructors has been in place for several years.

According to Jacquie Scott,  director of the Barrett Faculty Mentoring Program for Teaching Excellence and an honors faculty fellow at Barrett, the program requires two years of classroom visits and feedback, all geared toward making Barrett faculty as focused as they can be on effective, high-level student instruction.  The program has also increased overall faculty cooperation and reduced territorial conflicts among disciplines.  This is yet another way that honors education can be a positive influence for the university as a whole.

One part of the honors “ecology” that is requiring more attention is the recognition that the traditional honors predilection toward confident, extroverted young scholars who can comfortably participate in what are typically small honors seminars can mean that quieter, introverted students of great ability might be overlooked or misunderstood if they do participate in honors.  An audience member from the University of Southern Maine pointed out that faculty need to be aware of such students and not equate their relative reticence with a lack of ability or the passion for learning

Jon Kotinek of Texas A&M sees honors instruction is a process of “layering” honors experiences in the most effective manner.  This layering, the ecology of honors instruction, means that the watchwords of creativity, inquiry, reflection, and even risk should inform the pedagogy of faculty and the attitudes of students, to the end that the knowledge they all seek is not merely transmitted but also transformed by their exciting work.



Honors Conference to Champion Undergraduate Instruction

Note: This is the first in a series of posts about the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) annual conference next week in Boston.  We will be there, interviewing and reporting on the most interesting sessions and presentations, including those by students.

Almost 2,000 faculty members and students will be in Boston next week to attend the annual conference of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC), where in hundreds of sessions and presentations the value of honors education in our nation’s colleges will be on display.

At least 560 institutions, public and private, will be represented at the conference, which is being held at the Sheraton Boston Hotel.  Honors colleges and programs are transforming American higher education by offering talented students genuine alternatives to the most expensive elite universities.

By emphasizing small classes, honors residence communities, and innovative curricula that are often proving grounds for the best in undergraduate teaching, honors colleges and programs are challenging the higher education system to remain committed to excellence despite demands from those who would emphasize quantity over quality.

The conference theme is “Challenging Structures,” especially those that militate against excellence in undergraduate education.  “We maintain that honors education represents a challenge to the structure of undergraduate instruction,” said Rick Scott, incoming president of the NCHC. “Our gathering in Boston will celebrate teaching, learning, and the honors community.” Dr. Scott is Dean of the Honors College at the University of Central Arkansas.

The featured speaker will be Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, whose famous “Justice” course has long been a favorite among undergraduates.   His thoughts on morality and justice in political life are often contrasted with those of the eminent philosopher John Rawls.

In a world where parents and prospective students are searching for ways to add value to their increasingly expensive college choices, honors programs are the most powerful engine for providing the highest level of undergraduate education within institutions whose overall reputation may not rise to the level of the most elite private schools—and almost always at a much lower cost.

Honors colleges and programs have been a part of the higher education world for decades, but only in the last 20 years or so have public and private institutions turned to honors programs in order to attract and serve the nation’s most talented students.

The NCHC alone has approximately 875 member institutions, ranging from two-year community colleges to leading public universities such as Arizona, Arizona State, Arkansas, Auburn, Colorado, Colorado State, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Iowa, Iowa State, LSU, Massachusetts Amherst, Miami of Ohio, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC State, Ohio University, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Oregon State, Pitt, Rutgers, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M, UC Irvine, UCLA, U.S. Air Force Academy,  Vermont, Virginia Tech, Washington, and Washington State.

Private universities include American, Baylor, Denver, DePaul, Drake, Drexel, Elon, Embry-Riddle, Fordham, George Washington, Ithaca, LaSalle, Marquette, Miami, Northeastern, Rochester Institute, Seton Hall, Siena, SMU, TCU, Tulsa, Union College, and Villanova.