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Can Public Universities Scale Honors-Like Experiences for a Larger Number of Undergraduates?

We must demand that all students, not just the most privileged, have access to the kinds of enticing perks too often reserved for honors students.

October 3, 2022

What is an honors college?

  • A small college within a much larger institution, with its own facilities, faculty, course offerings, scholarship and grant programs and perks for honors students.
  • A special entity offering select undergraduates signature classes, early course registration and exclusive access to internships, research opportunities, social and cultural events, and small, discussion-based seminars.
  • A lure for high-achieving, exceptionally motivated applicants who might otherwise attend a private institution, and a magnet for donor dollars.

With their enhanced academic experience, strong sense of community and emphasis on engaged learning, the public honors college provides a model of what public higher education can be. Nevertheless, I must confess to mixed feelings about these units.

I intensely admire the objective: to provide accomplished, aspiring undergraduates the best that public higher education can offer—the small, rigorous classes and close personal interactions with faculty associated with liberal arts colleges and the resources and range of opportunities offered by comprehensive and research universities.

But I fear that many of these colleges are inadvertently and unintentionally elitist and exclusionary, too often segregating honors students (and frequently their core faculty) from the general undergraduate population and closing their doors to transfer students and to the nontraditional students who commute to campus and must juggle academic, work and family responsibilities.

I’m also uneasy about giving honors students enticing perks unavailable to their classmates: special housing; dedicated advising; early class registration; exclusive merit scholarships; research, internship and study abroad opportunities; and rich and robust co- and extracurricular offerings. Writing as a relic of the 1960s, I ask, must we replicate within universities the status hierarchies that prevail in higher education as a whole?

Aren’t there ways to give many more undergraduates the advantages currently reserved for honors students? I think the answer is yes and, as we will see, this builds on the history of university honors, which has radically reworked its model over the past century.

Today’s honors college is the product of a complex history. Like so many facets of higher education, this history cloaks far-reaching transformations under a veneer of continuity. The history divides into four distinct stages, each the product of a disjunctive break from the past. We might call these models Honors 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0.

Honors 1.0

The original, founding vision of an honors program, as promoted by Frank Aydelotte, Swarthmore’s president, bears scant resemblance to today’s honors colleges. Inspired by Oxbridge tutorials, the first honors program, introduced in 1922, targeted the small number of exceptionally gifted students who were highly intellectual and self-directed, who needed a special kind of education that met their unique needs. These were juniors and seniors who were expected to pursue a course of independent reading under the direction of a faculty mentor.

The program was exceptionally rigorous. Honors student took between seven and 10 three-hour written examinations as well as an oral examination, graded by three external examiners, who could then award the students highest honors, high honors, honors or pass.

Honors 2.0

Honors 2.0 was inspired not by the Oxbridge tutorials but by Columbia University’s great books curriculum. It sought to give a limited number of especially talented lower-division undergraduates a more rigorous and demanding educational experience organized around one or more humanities core courses emphasizing masterworks of literature, moral and political philosophy and theology. Such a vision persists and can be seen in Yale’s Directed Studies program or the University of Houston’s Human Situation course.

Much as Columbia’s original great books course, War Issues, arose in response to World War I, World War II and the Cold War impelled a rather ethnocentric approach to honors, with students engaging with foundational texts in Western culture. In 1957, about 30 public and private institutions met in Boulder, Colo., where they founded the Inter-University Committee on the Superior Student and launched a newsletter titled The Superior Student, reflecting their view that honors courses should be open only to an academic elite.

Honors 3.0

The egalitarian currents in 1960s thought, not surprisingly, threw this vision for a loop. One symbol: the shuttering of The Superior Student in 1968. Still, existing honors programs persisted, and during the 1990s and early 2000s, a new model arose—the honors college—as a growing number of institutions began to view honors instrumentally, as a way to attract highly accomplished students and to lure donor support.

The honors college was a learning-living community, with its own facilities and faculty. A four-year program, it offered inducements that went well beyond anything in the past, including special honors sections of department-based classes, honors clubs and, most notably, lucrative merit scholarships.

Honors 4.0

The current iteration of honors seeks to address two pressing challenges:

  • The growing number of pre-professional students who are uninterested in a traditional humanities core curriculum and whose very demanding majors restrict the amount of time that they can devote to the honors curriculum.
  • The pressure to make honors more diverse, more accessible and more relevant, by combating its elitist, ivory tower image.

The response to these twin challenges has taken various forms:

  1. New holistic admissions policies that take into account not only academic performance, but leadership potential, community engagement and a demonstrated ability to overcome obstacles.
  2. A broader thematic focus to appeal to STEM majors, including an emphasis on research, invention, creation and the application of knowledge.
  3. A stress not just on intimate seminars but on active and project-based learning and problem solving.
  4. A community service component.

Today’s honors colleges take many different forms. While some feature a common first-year intellectual experience, a growing number offer a variety of thematic tracks. Most honors colleges are relatively small and highly selective, but a few are exceptionally large, demonstrating that size isn’t an insurmountable constraint and showing that it is indeed possible to serve upward of 6,000 students while maintaining quality.

No longer is the honors thesis the gold standard. Many honors colleges have embraced the idea of a capstone project, which need not be a lengthy research-based essay. In other words, the honors concept is in a state of flux.

To me, the key question is whether it’s possible to scale an honors-like experience.

An honors college certainly isn’t for everyone. Some students prefer a more transactional, less high-touch experience. Many don’t want the humanities-based core curriculum that still characterizes many honors colleges. Many undergraduates find it extremely difficult to balance honors college requirements with highly demanding majors.

So what might Honors 5.0 look like?

  1. It would not be a unitary program offering a single, shared experience. Instead, it would consist of smaller programs or tracks, each with a distinct thematic or pre-professional focus. Examples might include the visual and performing arts, data science, health care, law and public policy, and sustainability.
  2. It would be much more accessible and inclusive and would encompass a much higher proportion of the undergraduate student body. It would not only admit transfer students, but second-, third- and fourth-year undergraduates as well as commuter students. Each unit’s boundaries would also be more permeable, allowing students to enter and exit at will.

Such an approach is not beyond our capabilities. We already know that the honors colleges at Alabama and Arizona State can serve many thousands of undergraduates.

To ensure an honors-quality experience, each subunit would need a dedicated mentor responsible for programming and hopefully teaching a core course. This might be a faculty member, but it might also be a practitioner or an appropriately credentialed staff member.

Each cohort would have several overarching goals:

  • To expand students’ opportunities to engage in project-based learning in close collaboration with a faculty member and classmates.
  • To ensure that students take part in rich co- and extracurricular activities, which might include museum visits, concerts and theatrical and operatic performances, and skills-building workshops.
  • To give many more students the opportunity to undertake mentored research (not limited to laboratory research, but archival research, data analysis and conducting qualitative research and collecting oral histories) and the chance to attend and present at appropriate conferences.
  • To engage many more students in off-campus study, whether abroad or closer to home and in paid internships.
  • To prepare its students for graduate or professional school or postgraduation employment in their area of interest. An arts cohort might, for example, not only hold an arts showcase, but participate in workshops in arts administration or arts education.

It’s easy to be cynical and critical about the honors college idea. After all, many, and perhaps most, honors students never complete a thesis. Many turn out to be no stronger academically than their less privileged classmates. Too many enter an honors program for the perks, including smaller classes, not out of a desire for an exceptionally rigorous academic experience.

But I don’t think we should dismiss the vision out of hand. Honors colleges give many students fantastic academic and nonacademic experiences and ought to serve as a model what a high-quality undergraduate education should be like. These colleges also demonstrate that public universities can provide an education of the highest quality at a fraction of the price of a liberal arts college.

In this case, I think we should embrace Louisiana senator Huey Long’s populist slogan “Share Our Wealth.” Maybe we can’t make “Every Man a King,” as Long promised, but we can give many more students an education that we should embrace with pride. It’s merely a matter of institutional priorities and will.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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