What Has Happened to University Honors Programs?

Sep 27, 2011

Historically, honors programs have offered highly motivated students a liberal arts-style education within a large university. But the dean of one honors program reports that more and more students have come to see admission into an honors program as more of a pedigree than an educational challenge.

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By Megan Driscoll

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Low-Cost Liberal Arts

Private liberal arts colleges offer a distinct academic experience, typically distinguished by small class sizes, close student-professor interactions and an intimate, discussion-oriented learning environment. However, these schools also tend to come with a high price tag: according to the College Board, the average tuition and fees for a private, non-profit 4-year institution were $27,293 in 2010. And while many of these schools offer large amounts of financial aid to low-income students, this leaves many families who cannot afford the sticker price but do not qualify for aid out of luck.

Honors programs are widely seen as a solution to this problem. They are separate programs (or, in some cases, colleges) within larger universities that offer a similar experience to a liberal arts college. Most include smaller classes, more personalized learning opportunities and separate dorms to encourage students to build that specialized academic environment - all at the same rates as the standard university program.

While such programs aren't necessarily better for all students, they do offer an important opportunity for those who would like to attend a liberal arts college but can't afford one. The College Board reports that, in 2010, the average tuition and fees for a public 4-year college was $7,605 for in-state students and $11,990 for out-of-state students, between about $15,000 and $19,000 less than a private college.

Peter Sederberg, dean emeritus at the University of South Carolina's honors college, reports that these programs began to emerge in the mid-20th century in response to a growing demand for higher education. As public schools expanded, the need for more intensive academic programs increased and the honors program was born. As a result, honors students have historically been expected to be exceptionally academically motivated.

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A Challenge, Not a Reward

Unfortunately, things have changed. In a July, 2011 editorial for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kevin Knudson, director of the University of Florida honors program, laments a shifting attitude toward honors programs among his students. He finds that both students and their parents see the program less as a commitment to a more challenging academic experience and more as a reward for high test scores and lots of AP credit. Knudson quotes one student as saying that he thought the honors program was like 'flying first class' - all comfort and style and no hard work.

Knudson speculates that this problem comes from the perception that university honors programs are better than the regular program, rather than simply different. In today's over-achieving culture, when parents enroll their high school freshman in SAT prep courses and doggedly pursue any advantage that money can buy, this perception seems to have led all high-achieving students to expect access to an honors program.

But as Knudson reminds us, these programs are intended for students who want to commit to a certain kind of academic engagement. Not all high-achieving students are a good fit for liberal arts colleges, and likewise, not all of them will actually benefit from an honors program. And the expectation that doing well in high school will automatically lead to access to an honors program in college has watered down the nature of these programs.

Knudson argues that universities need to re-emphasize the original intention of these programs. They're not 'first class' pedigrees for the best students, they're an opportunity for students to recreate a specific kind of learning environment. For honors programs to truly fulfill their roles, students - and their parents - need to think of them as a challenge, not a reward.

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