What is honors?

We are hosting our Big 10 colleagues in honors education today. Given this event, I thought I would I would repost from my SHC PSU blog this entry from last year. I will write more later since we are addressing the difficult challenge of admissions process and I think many would be interested in this.

I read a number of blogs and one that I have followed for a year or so is called "Confessions of a Community College Dean ." It is an anonymous blog and he is somewhere in the northeast. He describes the purpose of his blog:

In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990’s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two.

Today he is commenting on a NYTimes article that addresses the increase in colleges and universities charging different rates for different majors. I am not going to comment directly on that practice, but rather on a telling parenthetical comment by Dean Dad (as he is known, I suppose I too am a "Dean Dad"!) regarding honors education.

(More subtly, the cost premium attending to Honors programs will allow those programs to continue, which is important to the extent that they bring in the offspring of the affluent. Without a meaningful connection to the elites, public institutions become typecast as institutionalized welfare, and suffer funding shortfalls accordingly. If we can attract Muffy and Skip with some premium programs, we can use that leverage with their parents to maintain or improve our quality levels for everybody else. It’s the same logic behind sending Social Security checks to rich people.)

I should begin my comments with a caveat similar to Dean Dad’s own. He is a dean of a unit in a two-year community college and I know next to nothing about honors programs at such places. Yet his comment quoted above is full of fallacies, two of which might be more widely held, regarding honors education at the four-year level so I thought it wise to share my thoughts with you.

  1. Honors programs do not charge a premium to their students. I do not know of any honors program at the four-year university or college level that charges additional fees. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Almost all programs offer as part of their admission some sort of scholarship or tuition reduction. It is true, as Dean Dad alludes to in a later paragraph, that smaller class sizes do come at a cost. Faculty who might otherwise be teaching 200-300 students are instead teaching only 24 or so and consequently someone else must teach those other students. (In fact, some honors faculty will teach honors sections as an "over load," that is, teaching their regular courses and the honors section.) But this is a cost that administrations see as worth while. These courses enhance the educational experience not only of the honors students but others as well since frequently such classes are the test bed for instructional methods that are later employed in other courses.
  2. The purpose of honors programs is not to bring in "the offspring of the affluent." Again, quite the opposite. As a general principle honors programs have two primary goals: to provide the best educational opportunities to students who cannot afford expensive and so-called "elite" private institutions and to recruit the best and brightest students to a university in order to benefit the entire institution through their presence. The result is that, as I noted in point #1, honors programs usually offer scholarships and tuition discounts for their students because the students cannot otherwise afford the tuition (i.e., their parents are not "affluent") and in order to compete with scholarship offers from other schools.

To phrase the above in positive terms, honors education is fundamentally about what I refer to as "The Three E’s," Enhanced Educational Experience . Our goal at the Schreyer Honors College is to provide the best possible educational opportunities to our students while developing and preparing them to be leaders who will transform the world into a better place. If we were to add expenses to the already substantial costs of tuition we would undermine our mission .

At the SHC we are looking for the "best and brightest," regardless of their parental lineage or economic ability. We are not an "elitist" community of a few among the privileged, but a community of excellence . This is an important, even a vital, distinction. Schreyer Scholars are those who excel in their chosen fields and disciplines and they lead through service. The role of the college is to try and reduce the barriers to learning (whether financial or bureaucratic) and to provide our students with the opportunities to go as far, as high, as deep as their passions and abilities can take them.

In short, honors education is for the benefit of the students. Where there are additional benefits to the institution that is what in Louisiana they call "lagniappe ," a little something extra.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.