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.