Courting The Best & The Brightest
Honors colleges mushroom across the country in both two- and four-year institutions
By Kendra Hamilton
From parents to politicians to professors, everyone seems to have adopted “achievement” as a favorite buzzword, so perhaps it’s no surprise that honors education — and specifically the honors college — has become one of the hottest institutional growth centers on the postsecondary landscape.
Firm figures are hard to come by, but observers agree on the trend. “There are about 65 honors colleges affiliated with the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC),” says Dr. Peter Sederberg, dean of the Honors College at University of South Carolina and chairman of NCHC’s honors college committee. “But I would think the actual number is three or four times that — and growing every year.”
Dr. Claire Van Ummersen, vice president of the American Council on Education and director of its Office of Women, agrees. Honors colleges may have emerged in the 1960s at large universities, in part as a way to create a smaller, more intimate academic experience within a large, confusing landscape.
But the colleges, she says, are “no longer unique to universities. It’s happening across institutional types, at all kinds of institutions — in large, public four-year schools, in small privates, even at community colleges. Now, (at community colleges) they’re not often called honors colleges, but the model is the same. They’re taking honors students, segregating them from the general population and giving them enriched opportunities.”
Indeed, enriched opportunities are what the honors model is all about. At its most basic, an honors program is simply a sequence of courses designed to challenge students and to foster creative and independent learning. To be sure, honors colleges and programs are as individual as the schools that host them, but they all share some features in common:
• Small classes, usually less than 20 students.
• Interdisciplinary classes, often team-taught.
• Some kind of experiential education unit, from study abroad to internships to service learning.
Of course, slightly different models operate at different institutional types, In two-year schools — like Miami-Dade College, which founded its much-touted program at its downtown Miami campus in 2002-2003 — the programs tend to offer beefed-up versions of general education courses spiced by special lectures, speakers and individual research opportunities.
At four-year schools, on the other hand, honors programs can be offered in each major, culminating in a research project or creative thesis. When the program is at a university and has advanced to the status of a “college,” it may combine a multitude of elements, notes Sederberg: enriched “core,” or general education courses; “colloquia” or advanced seminars; and a thesis or creative project that may or may not be part of a departmental major.
To be sure, honors colleges don’t tend to be diverse. Sederberg notes that underrepresented minorities comprise 5 percent of the population at USC’s Honors College, compared to 15 percent of the school’s general population.
While national numbers are not available, the evidence seems to suggest that — with the exception of those at historically Black and community colleges — honors colleges and programs are overwhelmingly middle class and White.
“After all, we do know there is a significant positive correlation between academic ability and socioeconomic advantage,” says Dr. Lucie Lapovsky, president of New York’s Mercy College and a national expert on merit and honors scholarships.
That, of course, is not to suggest that African American students don’t benefit from honors education at large public institutions. Just consider the case of Ebony Spikes, who as a junior biochemistry major in Louisiana State University’s Honors College became one of only 40 students nationally to win a 2002 Marshall Scholarship, which funds up to three years of study at Oxford University.
And one can’t forget the fact that there is a growing number of honors colleges at historically Black institutions. “We make a conscious effort not to be elitist, not to be separate here,” says Dr. Freddye Davy, director of Hampton University’s Honors College. “The primary goal for honors here at Hampton is to affect the academic climate of the university as a whole.”
So, yes, schools remain excited about honors programs and colleges for a variety of reasons. There’s the fact that parents and students like them — a fact that can have problematic consequences.
“A lot of these new operations are just a way to keep up in a public relations arms race,” says Sederberg, whose college ranks with Oklahoma State, Arizona State and Oregon as one of the nation’s oldest and most respected. “They’re not doing anything new for the student than creating a new brochure for the parents to read.
“People don’t understand that to build a college on even a relatively successful program is not an overnight operation. A lot of what’s going on is overnight, what I call the ‘ready-fire-aim’ method of academic planning. The president says, ‘Everyone else has one — we need one, too.'”
But that points to another factor — that of need.
If one looks at demographic patterns, notes Van Ummersen, “Students are not increasing in number — particularly in the Northeast and along the East Coast and in the upper Midwest. Once this wave of the ‘Baby Boomlet,’ once that moves through high schools, colleges — with the exception of states like California and Texas — (we) are looking at either quite stable or shrinking populations of students, which means they must increase (the) college-going rate.”
This means that institutions have to start looking at “things that make them unique,” she says. “Honors colleges, honors programs, are clearly one of those types of unique features.”
States, too, can see the handwriting on the wall. Legislatures are becoming keenly aware of the impact of the academic “brain drain” — that is, the fact that bright students lured out of state to attend college don’t tend to return home.
“Massachusetts, for example, is a net importer of students,” says Van Ummersen. “Massachusetts has more students in its academic institutions than the total college-going population of students in the state. The net result is that the state has always had good students to hire into its companies — the students stay and become part of the professional work force.”
The response at the state level has been the creation of special scholarships —such as the Hope Scholarship — or the earmarking of lottery and other funds for scholarships aimed at keeping bright students in state.
“You see it going on all over the country,” says Lapovsky, “where the states are now saying, ‘If you’re a B+ or B student, we’ll give you a scholarship if you attend an institution in our state because we don’t want to be exporting our best and brightest.’ Clearly, many public institutions are using this strategy, and it’s becoming more and more prevalent.”
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