Honors News–August 11, 2015

August 11, 2015–Exciting news from Rutgers New Brunswick: a new Honors College, along with its own central living/learning community, is welcoming approximately 500 “of the highest achieving students from New Jersey,” according to Dean Matt Matsuda.

“Our students come from across the undergraduate schools at Rutgers-New Brunswick– Arts and Sciences, Environmental and Biological Sciences, Engineering, Business, Pharmacy, and Fine Arts,” the Dean reports. Membership in the Honors College is a four-year experience.

The new living/learning facility, “situated at the heart of the New Brunswick campus and opening this fall,” houses all first-year students in the Honors College, “as well as administrative and advising offices, six seminar rooms, plentiful lounge and study areas for programming, and three live-in faculty apartments. We are ready to welcome our inaugural class this fall as Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, celebrates its 250th anniversary.”

Building on the success of the SAS (Arts and Sciences) Honors Program, the new Honors College “expands honors education at Rutgers-New Brunswick, by redefining interdisciplinary education. While the school-based honors programs will continue as they have in the past, the new Honors College invites students from across the liberal arts and professional schools to live and work together to tackle global issues.

“The Honors College is a community where intellectual curiosity, hands-on knowledge, diversity, collaboration, and giving back are central to its philosophy.”

August 11, 2015–Although there are few hard and fast rules regarding honors programs, honors curricula and completion requirements are, as one might think, the most important components of an honors program. Here’s why: More honors classes, and the requirement that honors students must complete 25-40 hours of credits in honors, place students in a learning environment together more frequently, and reinforce their contacts with professors and research opportunities. Lower levels of completion, while still providing the advantage of replacing many Gen Ed courses with smaller honors sections, can (but not always) lead to a student’s declining interest in honors.

Living/learning communities, clubs, honors benefits (e.g., priority registration) and volunteer activities are also vital components of honors education–but in the end what happens in the classroom, and how frequently it happens, are the most important factors in sustaining the honors experience.

Honors News is a regular (not always daily) update, in brief, of recent news from honors colleges/programs and from the world of higher ed. Occasionally, a bit of opinion enters the discussion. These brief posts are by John Willingham, unless otherwise noted.

Honors Curriculum: Flexibility vs. Structure

Common sense suggests that there would be three basic types of honors curricula: structured, flexible, or a combination of the two. And that is the case, based on our review of the curriculum descriptions on the 50 websites of the universities under review. It is evident that any of the three models can work effectively, but parents and prospective students might want to consider the following information before making a final choice of an honors college or program:

1. Our evaluation and the resulting scores are based primarily on the quantity of honors hours required or typically taken by students. There may be a qualitative element in our evaluations when it is clear from other published data or from exchanges with honors directors that certain features that may not be prominent on the website are worthy of emphasis. A prime example of this would be a national recognized undergraduate research program. Yet, generally, curricula with a high percentage of required honors courses do better in our evaluation, and most of these combine flexibility with a reasonably understandable structure. Most of these also allow students the honors perk of priority registration, at least for honors courses, and this makes it easier for honors students to complete the more stringent requirements.

2. Programs with flexible curricula also score well if the total hour requirement or typical attainment level is high, even absent a strongly-defined structure. Programs with flexible curricula also correlate better with other excellence factors (e.g., prestigious scholarships) if the flexibility is coupled with priority registration. And this makes sense, too, because a program that allows honors students to literally write their own tickets must enable those students to pick their preferred courses as freely as possible, especially if the total number of required honors courses is high. Allowing honors students to contract for honors credit while taking non-honors courses may be an effective way to avoid offering priority registration, but it is not clear to us, at least, that the contract option actually produces an equivalent result.

3. The programs that are not assigned high scores in the curriculum category usually have a small honors requirement–say, only 14%-21% of courses counted toward graduation are honors courses, including departmental honors courses.

4. Parents and prospective students should be aware, however, that programs that are part of universities with a strong engineering focus have a significantly lower average of total honors requirements, about 19%, and as low as 14% in some schools. This lower quantity results from the time required of engineering students to meet their major requirements, so if the student is in engineering, a lower honors requirement may be regarded as a positive rather than a negative factor.

5. Final thoughts: priority registration is more important–and more justifiable–when more than 27 total semester hours of honors courses are required for graduation. And in general, especially for non-engineering majors, quantity does matter.

About the Numbers, Part 2: Curriculum Matters

In previous posts we have discussed the absence of a significant correlation between U.S. News rankings and the number of prestigious scholarships awarded to the public universities that make up the Fifty we are reviewing. While it is true that many public “elites” such as Virginia, North Carolina, and Michigan–all ranked highly in U.S. News rankings–have a high number of students who have won prestigious scholarships, the overall correlation between the rankings of the Fifty and the number of scholarships is quite low.

But as a part of our work, we have analyzed the total curriculum requirements for honors completion of the Fifty, and when the curriculum requirement as a percentage of all hours required for graduation is calculated, we have our “curriculum metric.” When this metric is compared to our metric for prestigious scholarships, we find a significant correlation.

Many universities that, as a whole, are ranked lower than 100 by U.S. News in the national university category, over-perform to a remarkable extent in the attainment of prestigious scholarships, and that over-performance is strongly linked to a higher percentage of credits required for honors completion.

One example is a university whose U.S. News rank places it at number 43 among our Fifty, but with a curriculum requirement ranking number one among the Fifty for honors completion, the university’s prestigious scholarship attainment places it at number 24 among the Fifty, above the median.

Another example is a university that ranks 48 among the Fifty based on U.S. News rankings, but because of a strong curriculum, the school’s attainment of prestigious scholarships places it at number 13 among the Fifty.

On the other hand, a university ranked near the top of our Fifty according to U.S. News comes in last in the number of prestigious scholarships. The university has a limited honors curriculum requirement.

Of course there are exceptions, but the clear statistical message is that curriculum really matters when it comes to attaining the most impressive honors of all.