Are Public Honors Programs Shifting too Much Toward ‘Experiential Learning’?

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.

Public University Honors Programs

Alabama
Arizona
Arizona St
Arkansas
Auburn
Clemson
Connecticut
CUNY
Washington
Colorado St
Delaware
Florida
Florida St
Georgia
Georgia St
Houston
Indiana
Iowa
South Carolina
Kansas
Kentucky
LSU
Maryland
Massachusetts
Miami Univ
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Montana
UT Austin
NJIT
New Hampshire
New Mexico
North Carolina CH
Oklahoma
Oklahoma St
Oregon
Oregon St
Penn St
Purdue

Private University Honors Programs

USC
Syracuse
Boston Univ
SMU
Northeastern
Villanova
Miami Fl
George Washington
BYU
Fordham
American
Baylor
TCU
Univ of San Diego
Howard
Loyola Chicago
Marquette
Univ of Denver
Clarkson
Drexel
RIT
Saint Louis
Tulsa
Dayton
DePaul
Duquesne
Seton Hall
Catholic
La Verne
Hofstra
Mercer
Adelphi
St. John’s
Seattle Pacific
Pace
Suffolk 
Carnegie Mellon
Widener
NYU
Lehigh
Notre Dame

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Inside Honors: What 9,000 Class Sections Can Tell You

By John Willingham
Editor, Public University Honors

When parents and prospective students (not to mention college junkies) want to “know” about a college, what they want most is to get a sense of what it’s “really like,” the inside story so to speak.

Most college rankings focus only on what can be measured: test scores, class sizes, financial resources, selectivity, grad and retention rates, the salaries graduates can receive. Some non-numerical ratings–the famous Fiske guide, for example–focus less on formal measures and do offer narratives that provide impressionistic glimpses of campus life. Taken together, rankings and good rating guidebooks provide much excellent information.

But surely a big part of the “what’s it really like” story has to be not only the graduation requirements but also the actual classes and coursework required for graduation. How many courses are available in your student’s proposed major? Are there interdisciplinary seminars? How about access to mentors and support for undergraduate research, both more likely if small classes are offered.

Yes, you can read about courses if you work your way through undergraduate catalogues. In some cases there will be course descriptions. But what you probably won’t find in catalogues are the number of sections and the actual enrollment in each one. What I have found during five years of analyzing public honors programs and colleges is that one cannot come close to understanding the real nature of these programs without poring over the actual class sections–and course descriptions.

When the first edition of A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs appeared in April 2012, I realized that it was a tentative step in the process of trying to analyze and report on the most important characteristics of honors programs in prominent state universities.

What I failed to understand was just how “tentative” that first effort was.

The original emphasis was on honors curriculum and completion requirements, and the overriding idea was that the more honors classes a student had to take, the more that student would benefit from what I called “honors contacts” at the time.  Honors students would have more contact with professors in smaller honors classes; they would find a ready cohort of serious students like themselves; they would have far more research opportunities, again allowing more contact with professors.

If honors programs sought to provide an Ivy or liberal arts education in the midst of a large public university setting, then the extent of honors contacts within that larger context would measure how well the program was meeting its mission.

I continue to believe the curriculum completion requirements are at the heart of an honors program or college. But those requirements only quantify the total number of credits a student must earn to graduate; they do not speak to the range of honors courses offered in each academic discipline, or to how small the classes really are, or to the type of class experiences that are available (seminars, lectures, labs).  The credit requirements do not yield an impression of how creative a program is or how interesting its courses may be.

In other words, the emphasis on the bare curriculum completion requirements does not get at the heart (some might say guts) of an honors program.

Now, with more than 90 percent of our data for the new 2016 edition in house, we have begun to explore the inside of honors education at 60 public universities, which means a somewhat tedious analysis of data for approximately 9,000 honors class sections.

Here are examples of what we learn from this work:

  1. How to develop basic classifications for the honors programs and colleges. The courses tell us whether a given program is a “core” program, a “blended program,” or a “department-based” program. A relatively small program with small, honors-only seminars along with relatively few set science and math requirements is a core program. Generally larger programs (some with more than 6,000 students) can be “blended” or “department-based.” If blended, they will have a large number of all-honors seminars, perhaps one-third to one-half of the total honors courses available, and the remainder of courses will be more narrowly defined by the academic departments. Department-based programs might offer a few seminars but offer most honors sections through the academic departments. If a blended or department-based program has a lot of “mixed” class sections (honors students plus non-honors students in the same sections), we can then pass along this information to readers, who may or may not care that many sections are mixed.
  2. How to asses the size of class sections. We have actual enrollment levels for the 9,000 class sections we review. This will allow us to tell readers about the overall average class size for all honors sections, including mixed sections which tend to be larger. From this, readers will gain an idea of how much close interaction with “honors contacts” is likely.
  3. How many honors classes are “contract” or “add-on” sections. Contract sections require an honors student to sign an agreement with the instructor specifying the extra work the student will do to earn honors credit. Most contract sections have only a very few honors students. The same is generally true of “add-on” sections, but these are somewhat more formal in that they are regularly offered term after term and have more established requirements that honors students have to meet to earn honors credit in a regular section. Readers may or may not like the idea of this type of section. Are they less rigorous? Is the flexibility they allow worth it? Our data indicate that in our data set of 60 programs, these types of classes may be about 25 percent of total honors sections. Please note that about two-thirds of programs offer contract or add-on sections for credit, but only five or six offer them on a large scale.

So…to know what “it’s really like really like” in honors program A or honors college B, you have to put yourself in the classroom, so to speak, and get a feel for the characteristics and subject matter of those class sections. Do you want the feel of a small, closely-knit program with a well-defined curriculum and rigorous seminars? Do you want the intimacy of seminars but also the nuts and bolts offered by a broad range of departmental honors classes? Or, are you mainly interested in having as many class choices in as many disciplines as possible, even if some of your classes will be mixed and relatively larger than the all-honors sections.

Once we have finished our “classroom work,” we should be able to give you a better sense of what 60 prominent honors programs and colleges are, in fact, like.