The College Board has developed a new data-driven tool designed to give college admissions officers the ability to evaluate test scores in light of an applicant’s educational, social, and economic background. The effort is the Board’s latest attempt to offset criticism that its tests favor the affluent, Asian students, and white students.
The new tool could also increase Latino and African American enrollment without the specific consideration of race or ethnicity, otherwise known as affirmative action, an approach that the Supreme Court might soon disallow.
So far, 50 colleges have been using the tool; it will expand to 150 later this year and be available to all schools in 2020.
The tool utilizes 15 factors (listed below) and provides a spreadsheet for admissions officers to use in analyzing the factors in relation to scores.
The new approach is certain to draw criticism, however. Students who live in relatively affluent neighborhoods, attend strong high schools, and enroll in advanced placement courses will receive low “adversity scores” and may find themselves relatively less likely to be admitted to some colleges.
Another issue: the data is based mostly on census block and other federal data, not on individual financial information. A wealthy white student might live in a gentrified neighborhood with inaccurate data indicating that it is still a lower income area. Similarly, a disadvantaged student might live just inside a census tract with high median income stats. Students will not receive a copy of the score–another area of controversy.
Students who attend highly competitive high schools in states with automatic admission based on high school class standing, such as Texas, already find it relatively harder to graduate in the top 6th or 7th percentile of their class. They are admitted “holistically” if they are not in the top percentiles; low adversity scores might narrow their chances even more. Or help them…who knows?
On the other hand, if the new tool on its own can lead to the higher enrollment of students now benefiting from automatic admission, Texas might be able to abandon the rule altogether.
High School Information–Four Factors
Average senior class size;
Average percentage of students taking the SAT;
Average freshman SAT score at colleges attended by SAT-taking graduates of the applicant’s high school;
Percentage of students at the high school who participate in the free and reduced-price lunch program.
High School AP Opportunity–Four Factors
Number of unique AP courses taught in that high school;
Percentage of the senior class who took at least one AP exam;
Average number of AP Exams taken by graduates who sat for at least one exam;
Average AP scores across all AP Exam takers and exams.
High School Percentiles–One Factor
The 25th, 50th, and 75th old SAT percentiles on Critical Reading, Math,
and Math + Critical Reading scores for graduates.
Neighborhood and High School Context–Six Factors
Undermatch Risk–Academic undermatch occurs when a student’s academic credentials substantially exceed the credentials of students enrolled in the same postsecondary institution.
Crime Risk–The Crime Risk represents the likelihood of being a victim of a
crime–not the likelihood of committing a crime.
Family Stability–Family stability is a combined measure based on the proportion of two-parent families, single-parent families, and children living under the poverty line within each neighborhood, or across the neighborhoods of past students attending that high school.
Educational Attainment–Educational attainment is a combined measure that looks at the pattern of educational attainment demonstrated by young adults in the community. ESL participation.
Housing Stability–Housing stability is a composite measure that includes vacancy rates, rental versus home ownership, and mobility/housing turnover, again based on aggregate population statistics.
Median Family Income — Median family income is based on weighted data from the Census/ American Community Survey.
Overall context is a weighted average of the individual metrics listed above. College admissions officers receive (1) bar graphs showing the applicant’s SAT score relative to others who share the applicant’s overall percentile of neighborhood
adversity and high school adversity and (2) the average freshman SAT score of entering students at the colleges that these respective groups of students attended.
You have already made big decisions about your life, some at least as important as choosing a college. You are not a finished person (no one is while they are alive) but you are a “started” person. You have failed, succeeded, worked hard or not worked hard enough; learned from your mistakes or not learned much at all; taken care of your mind and body or done them damage; and suffered from events beyond your control.
You have probably experienced more of life than most people would suspect. Now you are here. Heed the words of the late tennis star Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
“Now” is mid-April and “Here” at hand is your next big decision if you are among the declining majority who do not make college decisions early.
Advice about what to do now is abundant. Net cost. Distance from home. Strength in your major field. Reputation, ranking. Where do your parents want you to go? Where are your friends going? Your current romantic interest, if any?
But let’s go back to Arthur Ashe. “Start where you are.” Figuring this out can be difficult. Be honest with yourself. You know your grades, your test scores, your recommendations, your likely major. But is that data science major your choice or someone else’s? Are you really prepared for it? How about premed? Do you want people to say, “Look at her, she’s a physician?” Or do you want to do what a physician actually does, after a decade of extremely hard work? Computer science. Do you want to write computer code or get paid to write computer code that you don’t care about? You love your parents, and they love you; but do you want to do what they believe would be best for you or what you truly want to do?
If you choose a STEM field, think about the math involved, the usually strict major requirements, the sometimes narrow career options. Your parents want you to have a good life, and in recent years our culture has increasingly defined such a life as one with a highly remunerative career. Be honest but be prudent about the connection between college and career. If you love history, literature, or philosophy, be assured that those disciplines reflect the best of humanity and that your love of them speaks well of you. Be proud of this profound connection. But this country and the whole world have changed. Attend to the change; minor or double major so that you have a reasonably secure future. And proceed with confidence that your work in the humanities will be as big a part of that secure future as your more vocational minor.
Are your parents hard-pressed for money? Are you a late bloomer? Start at a less selective college, at lower cost, and work hard. A strong start can make up for a lot of setbacks. Point yourself in the right direction. The rest will follow.
“Use what you have.” Having lived more broadly than many people would believe you have lived, you know what you are most afraid of, hurt by, devoted to, strongest at, or confident of. If you are confident in math, you might want to zero in on that subject or hold on to that wonderful ability while pursuing something different. If you are terrified of speaking in front of people, are you willing to see this as an obstacle you now have but are determined to overcome or does the fear reflect a deep-seated and authentic introversion that could lead to artistic or scientific achievement at the highest level without confronting the fear directly? Using what you have requires you to understand that what you assume is a deficiency might turn out to be your own kind of strength.
“Do what you can.” A math deficiency, a fear of public speaking, a loathing for English grammar–they might stand in your way, but be patient. Don’t sell yourself short because you aren’t good at everything. Few people are outstanding in a wide range of endeavors. Some of these people were not outstanding in much of anything until they saw an opening, a way to go forward with just enough confidence or hope to move to the next step. In college, it is often the right instructor leading the way through a subject the student disliked or feared. The student earned a tough B. In the next difficult class she got an A minus. Then an A. Then she did it again. Then it was something that she just did.
If being realistic about starting where you are leaves you in, say, a regional public university that is not among the “public Ivies” or is not well known outside of your own state, doing what you can may still yield astonishing results. In recent years students from Youngstown State, UW-Eau Claire, and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga have gone on to win Rhodes Scholarships. Did they have to transfer to Princeton in order to be chosen for this most prestigious award? No, they stayed where they were, used what they had to the utmost, and did the very best that any student, anywhere, could do.
“It has become a mantra in some quarters to assert that standardized tests measure wealth more than intellectual ability or academic potential, but this is not actually the case. These tests clearly assess verbal and mathematical skills, which a century of psychological science shows are not mere reflections of upbringing. Research has consistently found that ability tests like the SAT and the ACT are strongly predictive of success in college and beyond, even after accounting for a student’s socioeconomic status.”
For years, U.S. News has used test scores and selection rates as ranking data for the annual “Best Colleges” report. The publication has slightly reduced the impact of test scores in recent editions.
Below I will explain why we do not include test scores as a metric and argue that, for honors and non-honors students, other factors are more important in predicting success. (High school GPA is certainly a major factor; but since almost all honors students have high GPAs, I do not discuss the impact of GPA in this post.)
In their published scholarly work, the authors argue that test scores by themselves correlate very strongly ( r= -.892) with the annual U.S. News Best Colleges rankings for national universities even though the test scores count for only 7.75 percent of the total ranking score. (The authors do not cite the impact of test scores on other ranking factors such as graduation and retention rates, which together account for 22 percent of the total ranking score.)
Our own work for the past eight years, however, shows that test scores do not have a similar correlation to quantitative assessments of honors programs. In our publications we list minimum and average admissions test scores for all programs we rate, but we do not count the scores alone as a rating factor.
Here’s why we do not use test scores as a measure: The factors that make for an excellent honors program are primarily structural. The major building blocks are the credits required for honors completion; the number of honors class sections offered, by type and academic discipline; the availability of priority registration and honors housing; the size of honors class sections; and the number of staff to assist students.
So, don’t the test scores drive the university graduation rates of honors program entrants, just as they do in elite colleges? The answer is not so much; the correlation is r= .50
Admittedly, it is probably difficult for a student with, say, a 1050 SAT score to succeed in an elite college or in most honors programs. But within a fairly large range of SAT scores (~1280-1510), the opportunities for success are more often present given a conducive structure. With every biannual review of honors data, I find great pleasure in discovering outstanding honors programs that are not housed in highly- ranked and extremely selective universities. The golden nuggets of excellence in higher education are scattered much farther and wider than many would have us believe.
I am strongly opposed to the numerical ranking of colleges or their honors programs, whether or not test scores are included in the methodology. I ranked honors program one time, in 2012, and regret doing so. Yes, I have data that allows me to numerically differentiate the total rating scores earned by honors programs. But anyone who wants to provide some kind of assessment of colleges or programs needs to do so with the assumption that their methodology is subjective and imperfect. Ordinal rankings based on distinctions of one point or fractions of a point give readers a veneer of certitude that a qualitative difference exists even if it (often) does not.
Although we do not rank honors programs, we do place them in one of five rating groups, a process that is similar to rating films on a five-star basis but based on quantitative rather than completely subjective data. The seven honors programs in the top group in 2018 (out of 41) had average SAT scores (enrolled students) ranging from 1280 to 1490, a sizable range.
Honors completion rates are something of an issue these days. An honors completion rate is the percentage of first year honors entrants who complete at least one honors program graduation requirement by the time of graduation from the university. About 42 percent of honors students do not complete honors requirements before graduation, although a very high percentage of honors entrants (87 percent) do graduate from the university.
The seven honors programs with honors completion rates of 75 percent or higher in our 2018 ratings had average SAT scores ranging from 1340 to 1510; the mean for this group was 1420. The mean SAT for the 31 (of 41) programs that provided completion rates was 1405, not much lower. And another seven programs with mean SAT scores of 1420 or higher had completion rates below 58 percent, the group mean.
The mean SAT score for all 41 rated programs was 1407; the mean SAT for the top seven programs was only one point higher at 1408.
It is clear, at least with respect to honors programs, that average SAT scores are not the best predictors of program effectiveness. What does this mean for the value of test scores nationwide, if anything?
I think it means that for students who are in the 1280 to 1500 SAT range, success depends as much or more on mentoring, smaller interdisciplinary sections, student engagement, course availability, community (including housing), and advising support than it does on test scores.
The good news here is that even for students who are not in honors programs, high levels of achievement are accessible to students who do not begin college with extremely high test scores, although non-honors students will probably have to assert themselves more in order to benefit from the strongest attributes of their university.
The following post is by site editor John Willingham.
For more than six years I have been fortunate enough to receive large amounts of data from public university honors colleges and programs. The data I received for the 2018-2019 edition of INSIDE HONORS pointed toward a trend in honors education: the partial substitution of experiential learning for traditional academic coursework.
First, what is experiential learning?
Students can earn credit (or “points” or “units”) for the following: doing internships, studying abroad, or conducting mentored research; publishing in journals and making presentations at conferences; applying for national awards (Truman Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships, etc.); serving on honors committees and in other student groups, and engaging in leadership training; obtaining certification or experience in promoting diversity, social innovation, and group problem solving; and for participating in the many types of “service learning,” usually involving participation in community or university volunteer activities.
Internships, mentored research, and study abroad have long been components of many honors programs; they often carry course credit. (Some of the activities listed above do not award course credit but only points for honors completion.) Since the Great Recession, internships are increasingly important for practical reasons. The same can be said for some training or experience in collective problem solving. Sometimes the latter can take the form of group projects that have a vocational focus (entrepreneurship, engineering); other group projects take a turn toward solving social problems.
So it is clear, at least to me, that part of the focus on experiential learning is a response to changing economic conditions. And the experiential options all appear to have laudable purposes. I believe advocates of experiential learning when they say their programs are “high impact” and can teach lifetime lessons to students. The question is not whether experiential learning is worthwhile but, rather, how much of it is appropriate? Thus far, the trend toward experiential learning appears to be centered almost exclusively in public university honors programs.
I reviewed honors requirements for 40 public university honors programs, many of them in flagship institutions, along with the same number of honors programs in private universities of approximately equivalent reputation. Of the public honors programs, eight have implemented or increased the impact of experiential learning toward honors completion in the last two years. But only one private university honors program has done so.
Note: Below please see the public and private universities I reviewed for experiential learning emphasis. Those in bold have notably increased experiential learning in their honors programs during the past two years. This does mean that, in each instance, experiential learning is necessarily over-emphasized. Some of the programs have retained at least one honors completion option that requires extensive academic coursework.
As recently as two years ago, I observed only two or three public honors programs that featured the emphasis on experiential learning that I see today.
If the trend continues, it could redefine the meaning of public honors education and further differentiate that education from what is offered by private universities in ways that might not appeal to many parents and students. After all, “going to college” has meant earning academic course credits in seminars and the disciplines, with participation in campus groups or volunteer work being left up to the students.
Elite private universities, most of which do not have honors programs, continue to follow the traditional model. Internships and studying abroad are common, sometimes for academic credit; but participation in other activities is based on student choice.
Most public honors programs have promoted themselves by promising the equivalent of an elite college education within a large public research university. I call this the standard hybrid model for honors colleges and programs. Thus far, the elite college part of the hybrid has been grounded in academic coursework.
While it is fully justifiable to augment academic coursework with some experiential opportunities, providing experiential honors credit (but sometimes not course credit) for one-fourth or more of the total honors completion requirement could result in a hybrid within a hybrid: some honors programs will continue to offer mostly traditional academic courses and others will ratchet up experiential learning.
Where experiential learning is prominent, the result will be less academically focused. How will parents and students react to this? They are often trying to decide between elite private colleges, which still emphasize coursework, and honors programs, some of which are becoming more experiential.
Here are some pros and cons regarding this trend:
Pros of Experiential Learning…
A reflection of the public service mission of university (one reason for current absence of experiential learning in private honors programs?)
Personal growth for students through broader engagement outside of the classroom
A stimulating way for students to apply learning outside the classroom
An enhancement to career prospects
An antidote to the self-focused culture around us
Less costly to staff and fund; no teaching faculty involved
Cons of Experiential Learning…
Distraction from core and major requirements
Complaints from students, parents based on above, and on confusing completion options
Challenges of finding meaningful opportunities
More staff to support experiential activities
Less time for academic electives
Duplication of university-wide or other readily available experiential opportunities
Of greatest concern here is the last “Pro” listing: “Less costly to staff and fund; no teaching faculty involved.” How tempting it must be to administrators to offer honors credit without having to beg and borrow faculty and classroom space. If this becomes the primary factor in shifting from academic coursework to experiential learning, the trend could accelerate and have a profound impact on public honors education.
To remain competitive with private colleges and universities, public honors programs should continue to be enhanced academic programs at their core, seeing their central mission as providing highly talented students a top-flight education, often in-state, and almost always at lesser cost than private university alternatives. When experiential learning accounts for more than about one-fourth of honors requirements, the core mission is likely to be compromised.
Two years ago, I began my journey to help my high achievement son find colleges that were a good fit for him and personal enough to challenge him and help him grow as a person. My initial efforts were deeply disappointing. Most elite colleges were far above our ability to pay, yet somehow the school calculators suggested that we could pay the full cost. Only a select few of the top schools offer merit aid, and in most cases it is very competitive. The options seemed to be middling schools (if we were lucky enough to receive a merit award) or our public in-state university system.
Then I stumbled across the website run by John Willingham, which led me to the previous edition of this book. That book was very helpful on our college search. Now my son is a senior in HS and we are in the application process. Soon we will be in the decision process, and some of the schools we discovered in his guide are on the short list. I bought the updated version of this book to help us in making final decisions. I am happy to say the new guide is even more helpful than the previous edition.
Read below for my review and see if this book might help you as much as it did me.
As college costs continue to skyrocket and elite universities eliminate merit scholarships, the opportunity for high achieving students to attend such universities is diminishing. If your family is not wealthy enough to spend $250,000 or more for 4 years of college, it may seem that a public, in-state university is the only choice.
But what if large classes and a focus on research over teaching are not the right fit for your high achieving child?
Thankfully this amazing book by John Willingham will give you mountains of data on a little known option known as the Public University Honors College or Program. These programs differ considerably in their structure and Mr. Willingham’s guide will help you find options that are the best fit for the type of learner and person your child is.
•Looking for a community of like-minded learners and enhanced access to research? This book will lead you to schools you may not have thought of.
•Looking for lots of seminars with a discussion based, interdisciplinary focus? There are options for that as well.
•What if I told you there was a community of less than 900 committed students in a university with over 25,000 undergrads. These lucky students share small classes, gain enhanced advising from the faculty and are groomed for prestigious awards such as Rhodes Scholarships?
Such programs exist. Often these programs offer generous merit awards to assist the nations brightest young minds to attend. Mr. Willingham does an excellent job of separating the best programs from the also rans. He also teaches the reader how to ask the right questions about other Honors programs that may not be reviewed in the book. That way we are empowered with the tools to evaluate any program.
Honors Programs / Colleges can be the best of both worlds; giving the more intimate learning experience of small school with the resources and experience of a large university. We have found schools that we never would have looked at for regular admission that are strong contenders for his decision next spring.
If you have a high achieving child and are unable to afford the elite private colleges, I strongly recommend this book. In fact, I will be donating my copy to our school guidance office when finish with it.
Editor’s Note: The list appears after the introductory section. The list is current as of September 25, 2018.
In a previous post, Based on Academic Reputation Alone, Publics Would Be Higher in U.S. News Rankings, we write that many public universities have a reputation in the academic community that is much higher than their overall ranking by U.S. News. In this post, we will summarize the reasons that prospective honors students and their parents might consider paying more attention to academic reputation than to other factors in the oft-cited rankings. The list also facilitates comparisons of public and private universities.
First, these are factors to consider if the state university’s academic reputation is much stronger than its overall ranking:
1. The overall rankings penalize public universities for their typically larger class sizes, but the average honors class size in our most recent study of honors programs is 24.9 students, much smaller than the average class size for the universities as a whole. Many of these honors classes are lower-division, where the preponderance of large classes is often the norm. First-year honors seminars and classes for honors-only students average 17.5 students per section. Result: the relatively poor rating the whole university might receive for class size is offset for honors students.
2. The overall rankings hit some public universities hard for having relatively low retention and graduation percentages, but freshmen retention rates in honors programs are in the 90% range and higher; meanwhile six-year grad rates for honors entrants average 87%–much higher than the average rates for the universities as a whole. Result: the lower rates for the universities as a whole are offset for honors students.
3. All public universities suffer in the overall rankings because U.S. News assigns ranking points for both the wealth of the university as a whole and for the impact that wealth has on professors’ salaries, smaller class sizes, etc. This is a double whammy in its consideration of inputs and outputs separately; only the outputs should be rated. Result: the outputs for class size (see above) are offset for honors students, and the wealth of the university as an input should not be considered in the first place.
4. For highly-qualified students interested in graduate or professional school, academic reputation and the ability to work with outstanding research faculty are big advantages. Honors students have enhanced opportunities to work with outstanding faculty members even in large research universities, many of which are likely to have strong departmental rankings in the student’s subject area. Result: honors students are not penalized for the research focus of public research universities; instead, they benefit from it.
5. Many wealthy private elites are generous in funding all, or most, need-based aid, but increasingly offer little or no merit aid. This means that families might receive all the need-based aid they “deserve” according to a federal or institutional calculation and still face annual college costs of $16,000 to $50,000. On the other hand, national scholars and other highly-qualified students can still receive significant merit aid at most public universities. Result: if a public university has an academic reputation equal to that of a wealthy private elite, an honors student could be better off financially and not suffer academically in a public honors program.
But…what if the academic reputation of the public university is lower than that of a private school under consideration? In this case, the public honors option should offer the following offsets:
1.The net cost advantage of the public university, including merit aid, probably needs to be significant.
2. It is extremely important to evaluate the specific components of the honors program to determine if it provides a major “value-added” advantage–is it, relatively, better than the university as a whole. Often, the answer will be yes. To determine how much better, look at the academic disciplines covered by the honors program, the actual class sizes, retention and graduation rates, research opportunities, and even honors housing and perks, such as priority registration.
The rankings below are on a 5.0 scale, and there are many ties. We have included national universities with reputations rankings between 2.7 and 4.9.
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.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a long and proud history as a leader in public higher education. On the website of the Letters and Sciences (L&S) Honors Program at UW-Madison, Professor William Cronon, history professor, former Director of the L&S Program, and winner of the MacArthur Fellowship and the Bancroft Prize, describes the 10 qualities of a liberal education. He could as well have been describing the highest purpose of all honors colleges and programs. We repeat his words below:
1. They listen and they hear.
This is so simple that perhaps it doesn’t seem worth saying, but in our distracted and over-busy age I think it’s worth declaring that an educated person knows how to pay attention–to people and to the world around them. They work hard to hear what other people are saying. They can follow an argument, track logical reasoning, detect illogic, hear the emotions that lie behind both the logic and the illogic, and ultimately empathize with the person who is feeling those emotions.
2. They read and they understand.
This too is utterly simple to say, but very difficult to achieve, since there are so many many ways of reading in this world. An educated person is literate across a wide range of genres and media. They’re able to read and absorb the New York Times, including the front page, the arts section, the sports section, the business section, the Tuesday science section, and the editorials; they can read not just Time magazine but Scientific American, the New York Review of Books, Better Homes and Gardens, The National Enquirer, and the Reader’s Digest, they can enjoy reading popular fiction ranging from the latest bestseller or detective novel or comic book to a work of classic literature; and they’re engaged by works of nonfiction ranging from biographies to debates about current public policy to the latest discoveries of science. But skilled readers know how to read far more than just words. They know how to enjoy wandering through a great art museum, and are moved by what they hear in a concert hall; they recognize the extraordinary human achievements represented by contemporary athletes working in fields as diverse as tennis and gymnastics and football; they are engaged by classic and contemporary works of theater and cinema, and they find in television a valuable window on popular culture; they can wander through a prairie or woodland and recognize the creatures they encounter there, the meaning of the rocks, and the lay of the land; they can look out across a farmer’s field and know the crops they see there; they can appreciate good food whether they encounter it in a four-star French restaurant or the Pardeeville Watermelon Festival; they recognize fine craftsmanship whether in carpentry or plumbing or auto mechanics; and they can surf the World Wide Web. For an educated person, all of these are special forms of “reading,” profound ways in which the eyes and the ears and the other senses become attuned to the infinite wonders and talents that make up the human and the natural worlds. As with the other items on my list, none of us can possibly attain full competence in all these ways of “reading,” but the mark of an educated person is to be competent in many of them, and curious about all of them. Encountering the world as a fascinating and extraordinarily intricate set of texts to be read and understood: surely this is one of the most important marks of an educated person.
3. They can talk with anyone.
An educated person knows how to talk: they can give a speech, they can make people laugh, they can ask thoughtful questions, and they can hold a conversation with anyone they meet, whether that person is a high school dropout or a Nobel laureate, a child or a patient dying in a hospital, a factory worker or a farmer or a corporate CEO. Moreover, an educated person participates in such conversation not because they like to talk about themselves but because they’re genuinely interested in the other person. A friend of mine says that one of the most important things his father ever told him was that in having a conversation, his job was “to figure out what’s so neat about what the other person does.” It would be hard to imagine a more succinct description of this key quality of an educated person.
4. They can write clearly and persuasively and movingly.
What goes for talking goes for writing as well: an educated person knows the fine craft of putting words on paper.
I’m not talking about the ability to parse a sentence or compose a paragraph or write an essay. I’m talking about the ability to express what is in your mind and in your heart so as to get it across to the person who reads your words so as to teach, persuade, and move that person. I’m talking about writing as a form of touching akin to the touching that happens in a wonderfully exhilarating conversation.
5. They can solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems.
This ability to solve puzzles and problems bespeaks many skills. These include basic numeracy, an ability to handle numbers and to see that many problems which appear to turn on questions of quality can in fact be reinterpreted as subtle problems of quantity. These days a comparable skill involves the ability to run a computer, whether for word processing or doing taxes or playing games. I could go on, but the broader and more practical skills I’m describing here are those of the analyst, the manager, the engineer, the critic: the ability to look at a complicated reality, break it into pieces, and figure out how it works, with the end result of being able to do practical things in the real world. Part of the challenge in this, of course, is the ability to put reality back together again after having broken it down into pieces–for only by so doing can we accomplish practical goals without violating the integrity of the world we’re trying to change.
6. They respect rigor, not so much for its own sake but as a way of seeking truth.
This is to say, truly educated people love learning, but they love wisdom more. They can appreciate a closely reasoned argument without being unduly impressed by mere logic. They understand that knowledge serves values, and they strive to put these two–knowledge and values–into constant dialogue with each other. The ability to recognize true rigor is one of the most important achievements in any education; but it is worthless, even dangerous, if it is not placed in the service of some larger vision that renders it also humane.
7. They practice respect and humility, tolerance and self-criticism.
This is another way of saying that they can feel and understand the power of other people’s dreams and nightmares as well as their own. They have the intellectual range and emotional generosity to step outside their own experience and prejudices to recognize the parochialism of their own viewpoints, thereby opening themselves to perspectives different from their own. This quality of intellectual openness and tolerance is among the most important values we associate with liberal education. From this commitment to tolerance flow all those aspects of a liberal education that celebrate the value of learning foreign languages, exposing oneself to the cultures of distant peoples, learning the history of long-ago times, and encountering the many ways in which men and women have known the sacred and have given names to their gods. From a deep encounter with history and geography and culture comes a rich sense of how very different people are from each other and how much they share in common.
8. They understand how to get things done in the world.
In describing the goal of his Rhodes Scholarships, Cecil Rhodes spoke of trying to identify young people who would spend their lives engaged in what he called “the world’s fight,” by which he meant the struggle to leave the world a better place than one finds it. Learning how to get things done in the world in an effort to leave it a better place is surely one of the most practical and important lessons we can take from our education. It is fraught with peril because the power to act in the world can so easily be abused?but we fool ourselves if we think we can avoid acting, avoid exercising power, avoid joining the world’s fight. Not to act is to abandon to others our own responsibility for trying to make the world a better place, even in the face of what we know to be injustice. And so we study power and ask ourselves what it means to act rightly and wrongly in our use of power. We struggle to try to know how we can do good and avoid doing wrong.
9. They nurture and empower the people around them.
One of the most important things that tempers the exercise of power and shapes right action is surely the recognition that no one ever acts alone. A liberally educated person understands that they belong to a community whose prosperity and well-being is crucial to their own, and they help that community flourish by giving of themselves to make the success of others possible. If we speak of education for freedom, then one of the crucial insights of a liberal education must be that the freedom of the individual is only possible in a free community, and vice versa as well. It is the community that empowers the free individual, just as it is free individuals who lead and empower the community. The fulfillment of high talent, the just exercise of power, the celebration of human diversity: nothing so redeems these things as the recognition that what seem like personal triumphs are in fact the achievements of our common humanity.
10. They follow E. M. Forster’s injunction in the novel Howard’s End: “ONLY CONNECT.”
More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections so as to be able to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways. All the other qualities I’ve described here–listening, reading, writing, talking, puzzle-solving, seeing through other people’s eyes, empowering others, leading–every last one of them is finally about connecting. A liberal education is about gaining the power and insight and the generosity and finally the freedom and the wisdom to connect. If one could pick just one phrase that would answer the question of what it means to be a liberally educated person, surely this would be it: “Only connect.”
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.”
A recent, excellent piece inInside Higher Ed, by Rick Seltzer, explores the pros and cons of public honors colleges’ charging extra fees (or differential tuition) in order to enroll and serve increasing numbers of honors students.
(Here we can pretty much confine the discussion to honors colleges because honors programs rarely charge significant fees for attendance.)
At the end of this post is a list of honors colleges that have significant honors fees, and the fee amounts.
Much of the piece involves Barrett Honors College at Arizona State, and Barrett Dean Mark Jacobs is a proselytizer for charging the extra fees and is proud that Barrett has been successful, telling Inside Higher Ed that “when you’re an educational institution, the best you can talk about in terms of the effect outside your own institution is hoping that good ideas you have might be copied and used by other people, or translated to fit their context.”
Ten years ago, Barrett enrollment cost each student $250 a semester. Now, the fee is $750 a semester, or $1,500 per academic year. With the cost of in-state attendance at ASU now at $28,491, the honors fee adds about 5% to the total cost.
One of Jacobs’ arguments mirrors those of almost all public university honors deans and directors: The “liberal arts college within a major research university” model is a bargain for students who would pay much more to attend a good liberal arts college or a strong private elite research university. So, even with the extra charge, public honors remains “a smoking deal” and “an absolute steal.”
Jacobs is in a position to know whereof he speaks; he has bachelors with high honors from Harvard, a Ph.D. from Stanford, and he had an endowed chair in biology at Swarthmore.
Another argument is that state funding cuts have put public universities in a bind, and the extra fees for honors help expand those and other programs at the universities. In addition, public honors colleges (and programs) give highly-talented students in-state options that are in great need given the increased selectivity and arbitrary admission standards of elite universities.
One thing not in doubt is whether the practice at Barrett has helped financially. “In 2017,” Seltzer writes, “the college draws 36 percent of its budget from general operations and 4 percent from endowment income. A whopping 60 percent of the budget comes from the fee.”
On the other hand, Bette Bottoms, dean emerita at the University of Illinois Honors College and a longtime leader in honors education, maintains that universities should value their honors colleges enough to put institutional money into them and not ask students to pay the costs.
“Now, if you tell me that Arizona [State] has some way of waiving the fee for lower-income students, that makes the model more palatable, but I still don’t agree with it,” she told Seltzer. “Do incoming students know this? We never charged a fee, and I found that prospective students and their families often expected it anyway — I’m sure this kept some students from even considering applying.”
“Arizona State must set aside 17 percent of its honors college fees for financial aid,” Seltzer writes, and, according to Jacobs, “Barrett students can receive need-based and non-need-based aid from the university’s central financial aid office. Students can also receive aid from the honors college in the event their financial aid packages are not enough to allow them to pay the fee for being honors students.”
The Barrett model has influenced at least a few other honors colleges. The new Lewis Honors College at the University of Kentucky will charge a $500 annual fee. The namesake of the LHC, Tom Lewis, donated $23 million to his alma mater to create the new honors college. He is also an Arizona resident and longtime supporter of Barrett, who likely believes the Barrett model is a good one to follow.
The issue of elitism at honors colleges (and programs) is also a factor. Even though Barrett goes out of its way to connect hundreds of ASU faculty, honors students, and non-honors students through the extensive use of honors contract courses, the physical separation of the honors campus can be a negative for some while it is a positive for others.
Our own view is that the extra fees can have an overall positive impact if they do not exceed, say, 5% of the in-state cost of university attendance and if the honors colleges have resources to assist students for whom the fee is a burden.
Another way to measure the impact of the extra fees is to analyze the extent to which they might discourage students from completing the full honors curriculum.
The honors college that charges the most in extra fees (actually differential tuition) is the Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon. There, students face an extra charge of $4,192 per year, which amounts to a 15.8% increase in tuition. Some scholarships to offset the very considerable charge are available after the first year.
It may be noteworthy that Barrett and Clark have similar student profile stats, though Clark students have somewhat higher test scores (new SAT 1410 to new SAT 1350). The six-year grad rate for Barrett honors entrants was 89% and for Clark entrants, 82%.
Oregon State Honors College has a differential charge of $1,353, not too much below the fee at Barrett. Oregon State honors entrants had a six-year grad rate of 87.6%, with a sizable portion of engineering students. The average (new) SAT at the OSU Honors College is about 1430.
While this is not definitive data, it only makes sense that the greater the differential cost, the more honors students will be forced to balance the value of their honors education against the cost or simply conclude that they cannot afford honors at all.