Honors College, Honors Program: Differences Revisited

In an earlier post, Honors College, Honors Program: What’s the Difference, we wrote about the sometimes minor differences between honors colleges and honors programs, while noting that, in general, honors colleges tend to have more structure, somewhat smaller classes, more staff support, and more state of the art residence halls.

In that post, the focus was on stats and structural differences. In this post, we want to highlight another reason that several flagship institutions have, and will continue to have, honors programs rather than honors colleges. Undoubtedly, the current trend in higher ed is to develop new honors colleges or to integrate existing honors programs into a separate honors college. This can lead to the perception that honors colleges are inherently better, more advanced, or more in tune with the need to create centers of excellence in public universities.

In the case of most of the public universities with an average U.S. News ranking of 70 or higher, however, the overwhelming preference is to offer an honors program–or programs–rather than establish a separate honors college within the universities. It is no coincidence that these schools, most notably Michigan, UCLA, UNC Chapel Hill, Virginia, Illinois, UW Madison, Washington, UT Austin, and Ohio State have very strong overall academic reputations and high faculty rankings across all major disciplines.  (UC Berkeley and William and Mary do not have any university-wide honors programs at all.)

When greater selectivity is combined with outstanding academic reputation and stellar faculty, students with Ivy-ish ambitions can say, with confidence, that the smaller communities and classes created by the honors programs at these schools are the final steps that bring them to substantive equivalence with elite private universities. The academic rep is present, and the faculty is strong even in non-honors classes. There is no real need to establish a separate, often larger honors college in order to concentrate the academic resources there, because those resources are university-wide.

There are exceptions, of course. When highly-ranked public universities receive generous private endowments or donations to establish honors colleges, they have done so. The Schreyer Honors College at Penn State is an outstanding example.  The Purdue Honors College is another that has benefited greatly from private donations.

The University of Maryland Honors College is another exception. Though not named for wealthy benefactors, the college was created almost half a century ago, in 1966, making it one of the oldest and most respected honors colleges in the nation.

Private endowments can also fund large honors colleges within flagships that are not rated among the top 60 public universities, making those honors colleges so notable that they often compete with public and private elites. Examples include ASU’s Barrett Honors College, the University of South Carolina Honors College, Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon, and the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at Ole Miss.



The Issue of “Elitism” in Honors Colleges and Programs

It is close to a given that whenever the subject of public university honors programs receives widespread attention in the media, many comments from readers point to the alleged unfairness–the “elitism”–of such programs. Some readers, understandably, lament the disproportionate allocation of resources to a relatively small number of students, arguing that the resources should benefit all students.

Comments along these lines appeared most recently in response to Frank Bruni’s New York Times column on honors programs. The opening of the new Honors Living/Learning Residence at Rutgers Honors College likewise brought forth the expression of similar views.

First, as to the basic charge of elitism, the term clearly applies if it is used to characterize the official membership of highly qualified students in honors colleges and programs. In general, they are among the top 5-10 percent of the entire student body, based on high school gpa’s and standardized test scores.

Second, it is true that specific components of honors programs, especially honors “benefits,” serve to set honors students apart from the overall student body. Prominent among these benefits are special honors dorms and one form or another of priority registration for honors students. (But some honors programs, most notably those at UW Madison, do not provide separate housing because of a conscious effort to avoid charges of elitism.)

Third, all honors programs offer smaller class sections to their students, especially during the first and second years of study. In order to provide these sections, academic departments must sacrifice “production” ratios in the interest of staffing these smaller classes.

If Professor A normally teaches three sections of microeconomics, each with an enrollment of 100, and then replaces one of these with an honors section of 20 students, the production ratios of both Professor A and the econ department are a little less impressive in the provost’s eyes. The emphasis on “productivity” in public universities has become a sort of mantra in the eyes of many critics of state universities, many of them on the political right.

After conceding the above, the justification of special treatment actually depends on  (1) whether public honors programs yield sufficient benefit to the whole university to warrant the emphasis they receive; (2) whether their target audience–honors students–really deserves special support, as do other groups (athletes, under-represented ethnic and geographical groups, low-income students, first-generation students, students requiring remedial classes); (3) whether the state and region benefit enough from the continuing presence of honors students; and (4) whether honors programs fill a need by providing slots for high-achieving students, in the absence of a sufficient number of places at, well, elite colleges.

The fact is, many honors colleges and programs allow motivated and proven non-honors students to take honors classes. As former Penn State Schreyer Dean Christian Brady wrote in a recent article on this site, honors can be a “gateway” to transfer and non-honors students who find, after their first year or two in college, that they want to embrace greater challenges. (Dr. Brady is now Dean of the new Lewis Honors College at the University of Kentucky.)

Similarly, the University of Georgia’s Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities, though under the banner of the school’s outstanding honors program, actually serves any undergraduate who wants to join in the excitement and promise of undergrad research. Another excellent program, Honors Carolina at UNC Chapel Hill, invites non-honors students with a strong academic record to participate in honors classes.

Dr. Jeffrey Chamberlain, Dean of the Hicks Honors College at the University of North Florida, agrees with Dean Brady that “Honors raises the game for the whole university. I am told repeatedly how good it is to have Honors students in non-Honors classes (and Honors students never take all of their classes in Honors).  Furthermore, Honors students help non-Honors students in every imaginable way—Honors students are math and science tutors, writing consultants, even RAs, so they contribute to student success across the board.” And, by the way, at a savings to the university.

Some states, such as South Carolina and Alabama, look to honors colleges to attract bright students to the state–and to keep such students from leaving the state to attend college. Avoiding a brain drain from a state or a region is, in its own way, an effort to maintain equity and to support and sustain the state’s economy.

Finally, what should a student do if there is a shortage of places at highly selective colleges and the student has the same credentials as those who are lucky enough to enter the selective schools? We have shown that, despite what some observers claim, there really are not enough places in public and private colleges for all the brightest students in this nation. Is it not fair–equitable, even–to provide places in public honors programs?

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.

Rutgers Honors College: A New Home–and a New Living/Learning Community

Beginning this fall, 530 first-year students will begin their honors experience in the brand new, state-of-the art Honors College Living/Learning Community (LLC). The facility is also the administrative home of the Honors College and provides classroom and conference space as well.

Dean Matt Matsuda tells us that “our new living/learning facility houses all first-year students in the Honors College as well as our administrative and advising offices, six seminar rooms, plentiful lounge and study areas for programming, and three live-in faculty apartments.”

Rutgers honors dormArts and Sciences and other honors programs at Rutgers will continue operations on various  Rutgers-New Brunswick campuses, but freshman entrants from now on will share the first-year residential experience at the new LLC, a fact that provides cohesion, mentoring, and lots of mutual reinforcement for the new students.

The Honors LLC is located in the heart of the College Avenue Campus, the oldest of the five New Brunswick campuses and site of the original university. The College Avenue Campus is home to the Student Union, Health Center, the school of Arts and Sciences, and many academic departments.

At at time when as many as 75 percent of applicants to the most elite colleges are capable of succeeding at those schools–while only 5-10 percent are accepted–public honors programs are an increasingly important option. (Arguments that as many of 80 percent of high achieving students can find a place in elite colleges are extremely suspect. Please see Is It True That 80% of Elite Students Are Accepted by Elite Colleges?)

Below are excerpts from a great piece on the new college and LLC, written by Adam Clark of NJ Advance Media.  One of the key points in the piece is that Rutgers, like many other public honors colleges and programs, is trying to give high achieving students in the state a public in-state option that takes into account the special abilities the students bring to the university.

By Adam Clark…

As an honors student in high school, Amanda Fraticelli loved the atmosphere of being surrounded by top students, she said.

Fraticelli, of Toms River, said she was motivated by the way students challenged one another to do better academically. While some of her high school friends went to Ivy League universities and Fraticelli picked Rutgers University, the incoming freshman doesn’t expect that challenging atmosphere to change too much.

“I like knowing that everyone else (here) cares as much as I do,” Fraticelli said as she moved into her dorm room on Thursday.

In Fraticelli’s residence hall, some students might care even more.

Thursday marked the official opening of The Rutgers-New Brunswick Honors College, an $84.8 million, 170,000 square foot complex where the best and brightest of New Jersey’s state university will live alongside some school faculty and the academic dean.

All 530 honors college stdents, with an average SAT score more than 600 points higher than the state average [of 1526], moved into the building that also houses the offices of their academic advisors and honors college administrators.

“It’s a transformational moment in terms of honors education here,” said Paul Gilmore, the honors college’s administrative dean. “It’s a way that we are making the state, the region, the nation aware of what an incredible resource Rutgers is.”

Rutgers is one of dozens of state universities nationwide investing in honors colleges as a way to compete with elite colleges to attract the state’s brightest students. The honors programs often offer upgraded housing, smaller classes and other perks to draw in top undergraduates.

In recent years, Rutgers has stepped up its efforts to recruit high-achieving students, starting a new scholarship program for applicants with top SAT scores and high school grade point averages. The efforts come as New Jersey remains one of the country’s largest exporters of college students — sending more freshmen to out-of-state colleges than most other states in the nation.

Rutgers has long had honors programs for students from certain campuses or schools. But the new honors college for the first time brings together the top students of all academic majors under one roof.

For some students, earning a spot in the honors college is simply a perk. They had planned to attend Rutgers anyway but like the idea of being surrounded by students with similar academic goals, they said.

The fact that the honors college is the newest residence hall on the College Avenue campus made the decision easier students said.

The double rooms come with the same amenities as other on-campus housing, plus carpeted floors and air conditioning. Some rooms at the end of the hall have a view of the Raritan River.

Unlike the large, group-style bathrooms in more traditional college dormitories, the honors college has smaller bathrooms throughout each floor.

On the ground floor, seminar rooms will host some of the first-year classes. An indoor-outdoor fireplace anchors a lounge and patio space.

Students have to pay slightly more to live in the honors college housing, which is only for freshmen, but they are also allowed to stay in their rooms over school breaks.

For parents, that fact that students will be living in a building with in-house academic advisors is a relief, they said.

“It gives us a better feel for how she is going to survive her first year,” said Fernando Fraticelli, Amanda’s father.

Administrators hope students not only survive but help make the honors college a showcase for the university, Gilmore said. Rutgers sees the program as a recruiting tool that will help attract the best student from New Jersey and beyond, he said.

SaraAnn Stanway, an Ocean Township High School graduate who scored a 2270 out of 2400 on the SAT, said she understood the honors college is beneficial both for the students and for Rutgers.

“It’s exciting that Rutgers made it for us, but what makes it ever better is that we get to make it for Rutgers,” Stanway said. “We have the opportunity to make the honors college prestigious and extraordinary, and I can’t wait to be part of it.”

Penn State Schreyer Dean: Honors College is a Gateway and Incubator for ALL Students

Editor’s Note: The following guest article is from Christian M.M. Brady, Ph.D., Dean of Schreyer Honors College at Penn State University. The College is a recognized leader in honors education, and one of only seven to receive a five mortarboard rating in A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs.

“Honors programs and colleges are each as distinctive and unique as the college or university of which they are a part.” This is how I begin every presentation I make to prospective students and their parents. There is no one set definition of what an honors program is, other than that all programs have the general goal of enhancing and enriching a student’s academic experience. The mission, vision, character, nature, and experience of each program or college will vary widely even as they all achieve that single goal.

I have had the great pleasure to be the director Tulane University’s Honors Program and I am now in my tenth year as dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State University. I have also been a part of and led reviews of numerous other honors programs and colleges around the country. This combination of intimate working experience and the opportunity to survey the national landscape has led me to the personal conviction that honors education should be built upon two pillars resulting in an “osmotic incubator.”


“Accessibility,” “permeability,” and “leaven” are all terms I have used to describe this attribute. I remained a pre-med student long enough to know that “osmosis” is the process by which molecules can pass through a membrane from one region to another. Honors education may be thought of in these terms, to a certain extent, taking in students at different stages while at the same time the college should be making contributions to the rest of the university.

In the Schreyer Honors College (SHC), as in all programs, resources are limited and therefore so is the number of students we can enroll. At Penn State we are able to enroll up to 300 first-year students as Schreyer Scholars. The total first-year enrollment at Penn State [all campuses] is nearly 20,000 students so this represents a very small percentage of the whole. It is the nature of honors programs that they are small in size so that the impact upon the students can be maximized, but that makes it all the more imperative that they be a mechanism for taking in students after their first year.

The “Gateway” entrance to the SHC was already in place at Penn State long before my arrival and it is an excellent solution to the challenge of finding the right size for an honors college. Students who have achieved a minimum GPA of a 3.7 may apply for admission into the SHC and in this manner those students who only “hit their stride” once in college can also have access to the benefits of an honors experience.

Aside from financial concerns, the primary constraint for any honors program is ensuring that our students will have the faculty support and direction they need. The Gateway selection is determined by the student’s major department; thus the department is able to ensure that they do not accept more students than they can supervise and support through their academic career, which culminates in an honors thesis.

I also believe that this egalitarian approach is in keeping with the ethos of Penn State, a land-grant institution that remains committed to the mission of providing access to education for all citizens of our commonwealth. Through the Gateway process we are able to recognize those students who have had a stellar academic career since arriving at Penn State and give them an opportunity further to excel.

This osmotic property of honors education should not be limited to enrollment. We also strive to have a positive impact in the Penn State community, moving outwards into the rest of the university. I believe that honors education should never be a “cloistered” community, set aside with few coming in and even less going out. Rather we seek to collaborate with colleges, institutes, programs, and student organizations to make a real and positive impact on our community. When we invite major speakers, such as last year when we hosted Earvin “Magic” Johnson for our Shaping the Future Summit, we set aside a dinner or reception for a smaller group of students and faculty, but the primary event is always for the entire community, both within Penn State and our geographic region.

The same is true in terms of pedagogy. Small honors courses with committed students allow for faculty to try out new and different learning and instruction techniques. We also make sure that once our honors students have enrolled in courses, any available seats in honors classes are available to all students at Penn State. They have to meet the same standards as our honors students, but they also receive the same education in the classroom. This is often how many of our Gateway Scholars begin their honors path at Penn State. Honors classes are also often the site of great innovation that benefits the entire university. This role of being a test-bed leads to my second pillar of honors education: we should be the incubator of innovation within the university.

Innovative Incubator

The concept of a tech or business “incubator” is known to most by now. These are programs, communities, or groups that provide the resources and capital necessary for entrepreneurs to move their ideas to products. We have a student organization at Penn State that strives to be just such a place for our students, Innoblue. I am their adviser, but a number of Scholars, both alumni and current students, are a part of this exciting enterprise. This concept is also how I view our role in education, “to improve educational practice and to be recognized as a leading force in honors education nationwide” (from the SHC Vision statement).

Honors education is a place where we, our students and faculty, can experiment, try different teaching methods, subjects, and curricula. This can happen because we have a great combination of engaged and creative faculty and highly motivated students. Our small size means that we can be nimble. Our faculty can try something new, knowing that our students will be able to give them instant, critical, and valuable feedback. If it works, great! We have a new course or program. If not, that is OK as well. We will have the information needed to know whether we can simply tweak it and get it right or if it really is not going to work after all. Finally, if it really works and is scalable we can take that to the rest of the university and everyone will be enriched.

This is what I believe honors education should be, an “osmotic incubator” that allows for great ideas and people to flow through enriching not only our students but our entire community. It makes for an exciting environment, full of new and nimble minds with committed and excited participants. In other words, it is why I love my job.

Honors News: August 21, 2015–Business Honors Programs

We are expanding our interest in public honors programs to include undergraduate honors professional programs, beginning with business honors. In the near future, we will begin a series of posts on the subject, centering for now on the 35 programs listed below. Business honors programs received some mention in A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs but only if they were an option for a university-wide honors students.

If we do another edition, we will likely include reviews, with ratings or otherwise, of some business honors programs.

In the meantime, you can use this list to begin your own searches. Please bear in mind that half of these are open only to sophomores or upper-division students who have already completed first-year and/or second-year courses with very high grades, typically a 3.5 gpa or better. Such programs are the business major versions of “departmental honors” upper-division tracks in other academic disciplines. There are good reasons for variations in the length of business honors programs. Some prefer that students have shown their commitment and ability in college before moving into the honors track. Others want to launch students as quickly as possible into honors. Business honors programs that have one or more four-year options are in bold below.

McCombs School, Business Honors Program—UT Austin
College of Business Admin Honors Academy–Nebraska
Robert H. Smith School of Business—Maryland
Lundquist College of Business—Oregon
College of Business-Iowa State
Bauer Business Honors Program—Houston
Business Honors Program—South Florida
David Eccles School of Business, Honors Program—Utah
Business Honors Program—San Diego State
Honors in International Business Program—Florida International
Fisher College of Business—Ohio State
Collat School of Business—Alabama Birmingham
Business Honors Program—Miami OH
Business Honors Program—UNC Charlotte
College of Business Honors, Georgia State
Kelley School, Business Honors Program—Indiana
W.P. Carey School, Business Honors Program—Arizona State
Rutgers Business School, Accounting Honors Program—Rutgers
BBA Business Honors Program–Texas A&M
Undergraduate Business Honors Program—Kansas
Sam W. Walton College of Business, Honors Program—Arkansas
Tippie College of Business, Undergraduate Honors Program—Iowa
Fox School of Business Honors Program—Temple
Carl H. Linder College of Business, Honors Programs—Cincinnati
Business Honors Program—Stony Brook
School of Business Honors Programs—George Mason
College of Business, Honors Program—Louisville
Culverhouse College of Commerce, Honors Program—Alabama
Eller College of Management, Honors Program—Arizona
College of Business, Honors Program—Ohio University
Foster School of Business, Honors Program—Washington
School of Business, Financial Analysis Honors, U at Albany
Gatton College of Business, Honors Program, Kentucky
Honors Program in Business, College of Charleston
College of Business, Business Honor Program, Illinois

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.

Why Don’t Some Well-Known Honors Colleges and Programs Appear in Our Book?

Update March 25, 2016 to account for changes scheduled for our 2016 book.

Some visitors to our site and readers of A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs might wonder why the honors colleges or programs at several prominent public universities are not reviewed. Those schools include Colorado, Florida, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Pitt.

The fact that these and other programs were not included in the Review does not mean that they are not strong options for an honors education. Every one of the colleges and programs above can rightfully point to outstanding accomplishments and alumni. On occasion we post information and links to these and other programs that were not reviewed in the book.

The reasons for exclusion vary, but they include the following:

(1) Some programs do not have designated honors membership or hard and fast requirements, preferring to give students maximum freedom in course selection. This is an issue for us because our key metric assesses the hours and credits required for honors completion and the specific course offerings available to meet those requirements.

(2) Some programs were in transition at the time we sent out the questionnaire. Neither they nor I thought it was fair to rate them under those circumstances.

(3) A few honors colleges and programs expressed strong opposition to our project and to the idea of ranking or rating honors programs, and therefore declined to participate at all.

The Review makes it clear that we no longer consider numerical rankings to be valid, as they tend to create distinctions (based on tiny statistical disparities in scoring) where no meaningful distinctions exist. But we do rate the programs, and that allows us to group several that are essentially equivalent. For example, we list 7 programs as having 5 “mortarboards” on a scale of 5. We do not rank those or other programs in strict numerical order, however.

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 News: August 13, 2015

Have you ever notice that the Academic Reputation scores in the U.S News Best Colleges ranking can be very high for several public universities although their overall ranking is much lower than other schools with less stellar reputations?

Of course, there can be good reasons for this discrepancy: larger class sizes in public universities, lower graduation rates, etc. But…honors colleges and programs within the larger institutions offset the negatives and offer their students opportunities to take advantage of the factors contributing to the strong academic reputations.

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 class size in the 50 major honors programs we track is only 21.2 students, much smaller than the average class size for the universities as a whole.  Most of these honors classes are lower-division, where the preponderance of large classes is the norm.  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 89%–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.  Typically, 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.

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 Programs with Lots of Honors Courses–and Small Classes

We measure eight characteristics of the 50 honors programs we recently reviewed,  but two of those characteristics–the number of honors courses and the size of honors classes–may be the most important for most parents and prospective students.

In our review, we use a scale of  2 to 5 “mortarboards” to rate the eight characteristics: (1) honors completion requirements; (2)the range and type of honors classes; (3) the average enrollment in honors class sections; (4) honors graduation rates; (5) ratio of honors students to honors staff; (6) honors housing; (7) prestigious awards earned by students; and (8) the availability of priority registration for classes.

In this post, we will focus on numbers 2 and 3 above, bearing in mind that a rating of 5 mortarboards is the highest possible rating, while a rating of 4.5 mortarboards is also outstanding.

When it comes to the highest achievement in both the range and type of honors classes and the availability of small honors classes, only one honors college received the highest rating possible–5 mortarboards–in both categories.   With an impressive range of honors interdisciplinary seminars to go along with almost 70 department honors courses, the University of Mississippi’s Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College certainly has a lot of honors courses to choose from, along with an average honors class size of fewer than 15 students per section.

Here are nine other honors colleges and programs that have at least a 4.5 rating in both the range and type of courses offered and the average size of honors classes.  Note: an average class size rating of 5.0 means the average class size is 15 students or fewer, and a 4.5 rating means that the average honors class size is 20 students or fewer.

Alabama Honors College: range and type of honors courses=5.0; class size=4.5

Arizona State Barrett Honors College: range and type of honors courses=5.0; class size=4.5

Indiana Hutton Honors College: range and type of honors courses=5.0; class size=4.5

Mississippi SMBHC: range and type of honors courses=5.0; class size=5.0

Penn State Schreyer Honors College: range and type of honors courses=5.0; average class size=4.5

South Carolina Honors College: range and type of honors courses=5.0; average class size=4.5

Temple University Honors Program: range and type of honors courses=5.0; average class size=4.5

UCLA Honors Program: range and type of honors courses=5.0; average class size=4.5

Colorado State Honors Program: range and type of honors courses=4.5; average class size=4.5

Texas Tech Honors College: range and type of honors courses=4.5; average class size=4.5

It is no coincidence that only one of the programs listed above has an overall honors rating (all 8 categories) of less than 4.0, and most have an overall rating of 4.5 or 5.0.










Honors Education: More than Rubrics, Templates, and Outcomes

Editor’s note: The following essay is by Dr. Joan Digby, a professor at Long Island University and Director of the Honors program.  Although we look at basic “outcomes” in trying to evaluate public honors colleges and programs, we agree with Dr. Digby’s criticism of the growing regimentation of higher ed in America and the current over-emphasis on business and bureaucratic terminology.  Our abandonment of numerical rankings reflects our own concern that there are limits to quantifying the real value of higher learning.  This essay is from the website of the National Collegiate Honors Council….

When my goddaughter was eight years old, she was permitted to come from London to New York for a two-week visit. Elanor was precocious and had been asking when she could make this trip from the time she was four. When eight arrived, she was packed and ready. I had never had children, so living with an eight-year-old was an intense experience. What she mainly wanted to do was solve Rubik’s Cube in five minutes flat. When that didn’t happen, she erupted into a volcano of screams and tears. Eventually she figured out how to solve the puzzle and brought her completion time down to about three minutes.

If Ernő Rubik were naming his puzzle, today he would probably go for the pun and call it Rubric’s Cube since rubrics are all people talk about now in education. Remember when the word “paradigm” appeared in every high-toned article? Well, it has been replaced by “rubric.” Here a rubric, there a rubric, everywhere a rubric rubric . . . Old MacDonald had several, and they all add up to little boxes far less colorful and ingenious than Rubik’s Cube.

I’m betting that most of the people who use the word “rubric” know very little about its meaning or history. Rubric means red ochre—red earth—as in BryceCanyon and Sedona. Red headers were used in medieval manuscripts as section or chapter markers, and you can bet that the Whore of Babylon got herself some fancy rubrics over the years. Through most of its history, the word has been attached to religious texts and liturgy; rubrics were used as direction indicators for conducting divine services. In a system that separates church and state, it’s a wonder that the word has achieved so universal a secular makeover. Now it’s just a fancy word for a scoring grid. Think boxes! Wouldn’t they look sweet colored in red?

For decades I have been involved in university honors education. The essence of the honors approach is, dare I say, teaching “outside the box.” Everyone knows that you can’t put round ideas into square boxes, everyone except the people who do “outcomes assessment,” the pervasive vogue in filling in squares with useless information. Here, for example, is the classic definition of rubric as spelled out by the authors of a terrifying little handbook designed to help people who are still awake at three in the morning looking to speed up grading papers:  “At its most basic, a rubric is a scoring tool that lays out the specific expectations for an assignment” (Stevens and Levi 3). There it is, a “tool” to measure “specific expectations,” and those are precisely what we do not want to elicit from students, especially in honors but to my mind across the university.

My goal is not to score or measure students against preconceived expectations but to encourage the unexpected, the breakthrough response that is utterly new, different, and thus exciting—such as a recent student analysis of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” in light of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, an approach that made me rethink the story altogether. The operative word here is “think.” Students attend college, in part, to learn how to think, and we help them engage deeply in “critical thinking.” Wouldn’t it then be hypocritical to take their thoughtful reflections and score them like mindless robots, circling or checking little boxes? Sure it would. That is why, whenever I hear anyone suggest using a “rubric” to grade an essay, I want to let out the bloodcurdling (appropriately red image) scream of an eight-year-old. I’m practicing. I can do it.

What I can’t and won’t do is fill in the little boxes. My field is literature—that is, thought and sensibility expressed in words. My field encourages the subjective, anecdotal, oddly shaped experiences that constitute creative writing. I can tell you a thousand stories about my students, how and what they learn and what will be the outcome of their education. I know their outcome (the plural is ugly) because I write to them for years after they leave school. Many are now my colleagues on campus and my friends all over the world. I can tell you their stories, but I can’t and won’t fill in boxes pretending that these will turn into measurable data. If my colleagues want to do the boxes, I won’t object, but “I’d prefer not to.”

Nor will I read portfolios and brood on what can be gathered about the student writers. English teachers read papers for a living. We assess them, write useful comments, and then return them graded to the students so that they can revise. Doing this is in our blood. For what reason would we dive into a pile of papers on which we are prohibited from writing comments for the sake of producing statistics that don’t even go back to the authors? All writers need suggestions and corrections. If we are not reading papers with the express purpose of providing the students with constructive help, then the act of reading is a waste of time.

I regret to acknowledge that the language and fake measuring tools of the data crunchers have infected even my own department, which now has been coerced into producing lists of goals and objectives with such chalk-grating phrases as “students will use writing as a meaning-making tool” and “generate an interpretation of literature . . . .” Not only the mechanistic language of the document but the fascistic insistence that students “will do” this or that strikes me as an utterly dystopian vision of a university education.

At the very least, English departments everywhere should be the ones to point out that goals and objectives are synonyms and that what the assessment folks really mean are goals and strategies for achieving them.  But “goals and objectives” has become a cant phrase at the core of the outcomes ritual, and I’m afraid there is nothing much we can do to change that.

Whoever came up with the phrase “outcomes assessment” probably has no idea how a liberal education works. We teach, students learn, and, if we are lucky, students reciprocally teach us something in a symbiotic relationship that does not require external administration. It works like this: students attend classes, read, write, engage in labs and other learning activities, pass their courses, even do well, and in time graduate. Faculty enjoy teaching and feel rewarded by the successes of their students. Bingo. That’s it. Nothing more to say or prove. No boxes to fill in. Anyone with an urge to produce data can take attendance at Commencement.

Other horrors have bubbled up to pollute the waters of our Pierian Spring. In addition to rubrics, we now have templates for everything we do. A template is essentially a mold that lets us replicate a structure. In different industries it means a gauge or guide, a horizontal beam functioning to distribute weight, or a wedge used to support a ship’s keel. You can find out more at students’ new best friend, www.dictionary.com.  Yet nowhere in this most accessible word hoard is there a specifically academic meaning for template, a word that must come up at least once in every academic meeting. The template craze implies that everything we do can and must be measured to fit a certain mold.  Not only the word but the increasing use of templates in the university reveal the degree to which academia has become an industrial operation.

In fact, we don’t need templates any more than we need rubrics. They come from the same family of low-level ideas responsible for the mechanical modes of teaching that I reject. If I were a medievalist, I would write an allegorical morality play, an updated version of The Castle of Perseverance, in which virtuous Professors battle vicious Rubrics and Templates, winning the day by driving them off with Open Books—

I concede, maybe Digital Books!

University education, what’s left of it, is at a decisive crossroad that requires us to take a stand against the models that administrations and consultants and accrediting agencies are forcing on us. The liberal arts and sciences are under serious attack, and, if we don’t defend the virtues of imagination and spontaneity in our classes, we will all be teaching from rigid syllabi according to rubrics and templates spelled out week by week as teachers of fifth-grade classes are forced to do.

It so happens that my grandmother, born in 1887, was a fifth-grade teacher. Every Sunday evening she sat at the kitchen table filling out hour-by-hour syllabi for the week to come. I remember a book with little cards, like the library cards we used to tuck into book pockets. No pun intended, but her last name was Tuck. Even then my grandmother resented the mechanical nature of her obligation, calling it with utter contempt “busy work.”

Part of what convinced me to go into college teaching was the desire to avoid busy work and to teach what I was trained to do without people peering over my shoulder or making me fill out needless forms. Throughout my career I have given students general reading lists, telling them that we will get through as many of the works as our discussions allow, eliminate some and add others if our interests take us in different directions. I always say, “There are no literature police to come and check on whether we have read exactly what is printed on this paper.”

But now the literature police have arrived. More and more there is pressure to write a syllabus and stick to it so as to meet absurdly regimented, generally fictitious, and misnamed goals and objectives. This is no way to run a university course and is instead the surest way to drive inspiration out of university teaching and learning.

Tragically, the university is rapidly becoming fifth grade. The terminology that has seeped into university teaching from the lower grades has, to my great horror, also mated with business so that the demons we are now facing believe that we will do as we are told by top-down management so that we attract students, bring in tuition dollars, increase endowments, and pass Go with our regional accreditation bodies. If this sounds like a board game, it is—or perhaps a computer game since everything seems to be played out in distance learning, distance teaching, anything but face-to-face, open-ended, free-form discussion and debate. This pernicious trend has made me one Angry Bird!

Around the campus I see that my young colleagues are running scared. They are afraid that they won’t get tenure and that tenure itself will soon disappear. They are afraid that their small department will be absorbed by another, bigger one. They are afraid that their classes will be cancelled and they will ultimately lose their jobs. We are not in familiar territory because all of the power and control have been misappropriated by business operatives calling for outcomes. We need to remind them that a university—and especially an honors program—is in essence a faculty teaching students. Administrators are hired hands secondary to this endeavor. Moreover, only one outcome is important: students graduate and go into the world to become the next generation of educated people. We need to clear all the rubrics and templates out of the way so that we can teach and they can learn.

To my mind there is nothing but folly in searching for “measurable outcomes”; this is a quest as doomed as searching for the meaning of life. Those who remember Monty Python will get the idea and imagine the Knights Templates dressed up in rubric baldrics, entertaining us with a jolly good “Outcomes Assessment Joust.”


Stevens, Dannelle D., and Levi, Antonia J. Introduction to Rubrics: An Assessment Tool to Save Grading Time, Convey Effective Feedback and Promote Student Learning. Sterling, VA:  Stylus Publishing, 2013.

The author may be contacted at Joan.Digby@liu.edu.

Honors College, Honors Program? Prestigious Scholarships, By Category

Of the fifty public universities in our survey, 19 have honors colleges (38%), and 31 have honors programs (62%). Below is comparison showing the number of prestigious undergraduate and graduate scholarships awarded, by category.

For purposes of the comparison, we are using the whole history of Rhodes scholarships; Gates and Marshall scholarships since 2001–2011; Churchill Scholarships since 1963; and all Truman Scholars since 1977. Fulbright scholarships are not included in the comparison because those totals have been adjusted for the size of the undergraduate population and raw numbers would be misleading in this comparison. They will be considered in the final review of programs and colleges.

We considered looking only at awards during the last ten years or so, but decided on a combined approach, using all Rhodes awards, for example, because of their prominence in the public mind and because they are the most difficult to earn, given the small number (32 this year) that are awarded to U.S. students. However, we are only counting more recent Marshall awards, as noted above. Postgraduate awards for UC campuses have been adjusted to take into account the dates on which they commenced operations.

The figures reveal that universities with honors programs have a higher proportion of prestigious scholarship winners than do universities with honors colleges, although the latter come close to proportional equality in the category of undergraduate scholarships. One possible explanation for the greater proportion coming from honors programs is that honors colleges are typically a more recent development in honors education; in some cases, the universities of which they are now a part did not have an existing pattern of receiving a large number of prestigious scholarships before the inception of the honors colleges.

On the other hand, the Goldwater Scholarships (1989) and the Udall Scholarships (1996), both for undergraduate research, are relatively recent additions that have given the newer honors colleges an opportunity to prove their value by over-performing in Udall Scholarships and holding their own in Goldwater Scholarships.

Here are the figures, bearing in mind that Honors Colleges are 38% of our Fifty, and Honors Programs are 62% of the Fifty:

Honors Colleges, Udall Scholarships, 44.1% of the total.
Honors Programs, Udall Scholarships, 55.9% of the total.

Honors Colleges, Goldwater Scholarships, 35.2% of the total.
Honors Programs, Goldwater Scholarships, 64.8% of the total.

Honors Colleges, Postgraduate Scholarships, 31.8% of the total.
Honors Programs, Postgraduate Scholarships, 68.2% of the total.