Fee for Honors

Arizona State’s honors college fee, currently at $1,500 per year, has enabled explosive growth, leaders say. Critics worry about dissuading poor students from enrolling, but others say public institutions need new sources of revenue and ways to offer value to top students.

September 18, 2017
Arizona State University

Fast food isn’t the most common point of comparison for honors colleges.

But Mark Jacobs, vice provost and dean of Arizona State University’s honors college -- called Barrett, The Honors College -- used it anyway.

“If I were Kentucky Fried Chicken, I guess we’d want to franchise Barrett and make tons of money,” Jacobs said in a recent interview. “But when you’re an educational institution, the best you can talk about in terms of the effect outside your own institution is hoping that good ideas you have might be copied and used by other people, or translated to fit their context.”

Jacobs was discussing the future of the model Arizona State has used to build its honors college, which has positioned itself as a liberal arts college nestled within a public university. The honors college boasts its own gated corner of Arizona State’s Tempe campus, complete with residence halls, classrooms, a gym and other amenities. Those amenities include a dining center with some very non-fast food touches, like a refectory modeled after a British university dining hall.

The honors college has its own dedicated faculty and staff so that students can take many courses in small classes instead of lecture halls filled with hundreds of students. It boasts of master teachers who dedicate all of their time to students. And it has grown rapidly in the last dozen-plus years.

To fuel its growth, the honors college has utilized a powerful but controversial mechanism: a substantial program fee. The fee has grown from $250 per semester when it was approved a decade ago to $750 per semester today.

Program fees or differential tuition rates for high-cost programs have become increasingly common at colleges and universities in recent years. Backers of the charges see them as important new funding streams, particularly for public institutions trying to compensate for limited state funding.

Still, the practice is generally considered more common among professionally geared programs like engineering than it is at honors colleges. Its detractors characterize it as a way to attract wealthy students who are most likely to qualify for honors programs -- and as a way to wring more money out of those students. They also argue high fees and differential tuition can dissuade poor students from enrolling in honors colleges.

In light of that debate, Arizona State and Jacobs stand out for their unabashed salesmanship of the practice. Jacobs contrasts Arizona State’s roughly $25,000 per year estimated cost of attendance for an in-state student to the $65,000 or more quoted by many liberal arts colleges in the northeast. In light of those figures, Arizona State’s honors college fee is a “smoking deal” and “absolutely a steal,” he said.

Public institutions across the country are taking note of the growth of Arizona State’s honors college or incorporating parts of its model, Jacobs continued. They include the University of Kentucky, which is turning an honors program into an honors college, and Portland State University, he said.

“I do think we are affecting the whole nation, or at least the U.S.’s public universities, and becoming a model of what a public can do for their most academically engaged students,” Jacobs said in a follow-up email.

Evidence and experts seem to support that assertion. The idea of honors college fees is being explored and implemented by institutions across the country. Many expect fees or differential tuition structures to grow in the future as administrators struggle to build programs that attract students and to find new sources of revenue.

Arizona State’s Story

Mark JacobsJacobs has led Arizona State’s honors college since 2003, when he was one of President Michael Crow’s early administrative hires. He had chaired the biology department at Swarthmore College and was associate provost there.

Arizona State already had a long-established honors college, but Jacobs soon faced a series of questions about the future. He had to decide whether to move the college to a new campus in Paradise Valley, away from Arizona State’s main Tempe campus. He decided against it, and Barrett was instead located on nine acres in a corner of the Tempe campus.

The idea was that students could walk off the honors college grounds and tap into the resources of the larger university, then walk back to the honors college and get the same level of attention and support they would get at a private liberal arts college like Swarthmore or Amherst.

But the college was also growing and facing financial pressures. In the mid-2000s, leaders asked the Arizona Board of Regents for permission to charge new honors college students a fee of $250 per semester and existing students a fee of $125 per semester.

The fee revenue would be used to fund more honors seminars, more support for senior theses, internship advising and summer study abroad scholarships, according to board documents. Fee revenue would further be used to establish a new honors section of an English course and new lectures.

One argument for the fee was that it wouldn’t just benefit honors students -- it would improve the entire university’s academic reputation.

Regents rejected the fee in 2005 but approved it the next year, in 2006. It has increased twice since its approval, Jacobs said, first to $500 per semester and then to the current $750 per semester.

The honors college has grown substantially. In 2003-04, before the fee was put in place, its annual budget totaled about $2.3 million. It had nine faculty members, 16 staff members and 2,696 students. Today, the honors college’s budget has grown to about $11 million. It employs 44 faculty members and 80 staff members. It also enrolls 7,200 students.

The fee radically revamped the construction of the honors college’s budget. In 2003, it drew 76 percent of its revenue from general operations, a budget line including state support and tuition charges. The other 24 percent of its budget came from endowment income.

In 2017, the college draws 36 percent of its budget from general operations and 4 percent from endowment income. A whopping 60 percent of the budget comes from the fee.

It has been a critical mechanism at a time when state support for higher education has not kept pace with demand, according to Jacobs. Arizona's Legislature has pulled back from funding higher education, even cutting all state funding for two large community colleges in the state in recent years.

“We charge a fee, but colleges at ASU charging fees at all is sort of connected to the whole story out here with the Arizona Legislature,” Jacobs said. “Originally, charging a fee from some of the colleges was a way to keep them operating with funds that they could use for good new programs.”

Meanwhile, Arizona State emphasized the honors college’s physical presence. It totaled just under 200,000 square feet in 2003-04. Today it is almost 600,000 square feet. Jacobs touts a nine-acre, $140 million complex designed around a central dining area. He likens the idea to the University of Oxford.

American Campus Communities, a private developer and manager of student housing, invested in the campus, which opened in 2009. Arizona State describes it as “the country’s first comprehensive four-year residential honors college campus in a top-tier research 1 university.”

About 83 percent of the honors college’s students are at its Tempe campus. The others are spread across three other campuses that administrators hope to grow in the future. The focus in Tempe going forward will be programmatic improvements.

Many public universities had honors colleges 14 years ago when Jacobs came to Arizona State, he said. But most weren’t developed.

He argued that dedicating energy and resources to building an honors college represents a substantial change from past practices. Arizona State is building its honors college to provide an education that is as good as one provided by private colleges, but at a cheaper price, Jacobs said.

“It wasn’t the idea of an honors college,” he said. “It was the idea of a changed one, an enhanced one, one that paid attention to ideas that work at private colleges to engage the smart kids at those places. That was the change.”

Fees Criticized

It can be argued that an honors college fee amounting to $1,500 per year is relatively small in comparison to the total cost of attending Arizona State. The university estimates total cost of attendance at $28,491 for in-state undergraduates attending its Tempe campus in 2017-18, including books, supplies, housing, meals and travel costs. It estimates total cost of attendance at $45,071 for nonresident students at Tempe and $49,286 for international students there. Those estimates do not account for different program fees or financial aid.

Yet some balk at the idea of charging high-achieving students more money so that they can study in an honors setting. They worry it discourages poor students from enrolling in honors, even if they are highly qualified.

Bette Bottoms is a professor of psychology and dean emerita of the honors college at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has always been against the idea of a fee-for-service model in an honors setting, she said in an email. It makes the playing field less level for students of low and moderate socioeconomic status, she said.

“Now, if you tell me that Arizona [State] has some way of waiving the fee for lower-income students, that makes the model more palatable, but I still don’t agree with it,” she said. “Do incoming students know this? We never charged a fee, and I found that prospective students and their families often expected it anyway -- I’m sure this kept some students from even considering applying.”

Arizona State must set aside 17 percent of its honors college fees for financial aid, according to Jacobs. Barrett students can receive need-based and non-need-based aid from the university’s central financial aid office. Students can also receive aid from the honors college in the event their financial aid packages are not enough to allow them to pay the fee for being honors students, he added.

Bottoms was not swayed. If a university values honors, then it should support honors colleges and programs with specific allocations of funds instead of extra fees, she argued.

The Arizona Board of Regents has at times struggled with the idea of fees as well. When Arizona State asked to implement an honors college fee in 2005, it was rebuffed by regents who voted down a number of undergraduate fees, including new architecture and engineering fees at the University of Arizona. The board did not approve the university’s request even though Arizona State had cut its honors fee proposal from $500 per semester to $250 per semester because of student and parent feedback.

“We would be remiss if we didn’t recognize that we as educational leaders have created a climate for the students where they believe fees are necessary,” Regent Ernest Calderón said, the Arizona Daily Star reported at the time. “I’m not sure that’s consistent with the Arizona Constitution.”

Arizona’s Constitution requires public higher education be “as nearly free as possible.”

Regents approved the fee in 2006 along with numerous other fee and differential tuition changes. Calderón likened the fee situation to a “user tax” where users pay their own freight as they travel through the education system, according to meeting minutes. He said he hoped it was a symptom of lacking education funding instead of a symptom of lacking self-restraint.

Growth Projections

Despite the practice’s controversial nature, higher education leaders and other experts agreed that program fees and differential tuition have been spreading -- and that they’re likely to proliferate further. Their predictions applied to both honors colleges and other programs.

A small but significant portion of honors colleges already charge students separate fees. An even 17 percent of honors colleges at four-year institutions charge a separate fee, according to a 2016 survey from the National Collegiate Honors Council. The average fee among those that charged one was $552.10 per year.

Honors colleges were much more likely than honors programs to charge a fee. Only 4.6 percent of honors programs charged a fee, averaging $74.30.

The National Collegiate Honors Council does not have any data on whether fees are growing among honors colleges. Its 2016 survey was the first asking about the practice. The organization has found, though, that honors colleges have been established at a faster clip in recent years than they were in the past.

Anecdotally, institutions are increasingly interested in building their honors colleges in ways that look similar to Arizona State’s model of a liberal arts college within a public university. And they are often funding their efforts with student fees or differential tuition.

The University of Kentucky, for example, is turning its honors program into the Lewis Honors College after receiving a $23 million gift in 2015. This summer the college hired its first dean, Christian Brady, who spent 10 years at Pennsylvania State University’s well-known Schreyer Honors College.

Some of the Kentucky honors college’s framework echoes what Arizona State is doing, Brady said. It will have a dozen lecturers, most of whom will be teaching a foundations course. The honors college has a $500 annual fee associated with it to support staffing and special programming.

Kentucky is entering a capital campaign, and Brady has the goal of raising money so the honors fee does not have to increase. Students who are eligible for federal Pell Grants can have the fee waived, and the college will develop grants so it can waive the fee for others, he said.

Kentucky is aiming for its honors college to have roughly 2,200 students, or about 10 percent of the university’s undergraduate student body. The university is not replicating everything Arizona State is doing, Brady said.

“I know President Crow and Mark have really gone for sort of a more cloistered and separated approach,” Brady said. “That was not my approach to honors, particularly within a land-grant university.”

Some students don’t prefer the Arizona State honors college’s separate feel. In an April opinion piece for the University of Arizona’s student newspaper, The Daily Wildcat, one student critiqued a proposed honors complex at Arizona by saying it would create a similar facility to Arizona State’s.

Toni Marcheva, who decided to attend Arizona over Arizona State in part because of the differences in honors facilities, wrote that Arizona State’s honors college was “pretty off-putting.” She felt isolated once she stepped through its gates, and she heard students at Arizona State’s honors college were not part of the larger university community, she wrote.

“The separation did not make sense to me,” she wrote. “The real world does not separate the ‘good test takers’ from everyone else. In the real world, students categorized as honors students are integrated with everyone else.”

More broadly, a fundamental tension exists between how resources are collected and spent within public universities and honors colleges.

Many see a public honors college as having the mission of providing a high-quality education to a state’s top students in order to prevent the brain drain of those students leaving for Ivy League and other highly selective institutions. Worries persist, though, that some honors colleges will be tempted to offer more amenities than substance, particularly as private institutions set up their own honors colleges to compete.

The question is not just whether honors students should pay more for their experience. It’s also why a particular amenity or experience is appropriate for honors students but not the larger student body.

“On some level, everything we’re doing with honors is what, ideally, we would do for all of our student body,” said Brady at Kentucky. “But there’s a reason why honors colleges are found predominantly in large state universities. It’s because some things just aren’t scalable. And honors is always a more expensive proposition, whether fees are being charged directly or not.”

Yet models can vary significantly even among those institutions charging honors fees. Portland State University’s honors college charges an additional $7 per credit hour. Its approximately 800 students typically take four honors credit hours every quarter, but the differential tuition applies to all credit hours an honors student takes. A student taking three four-credit classes in a quarter pays $84 in differential tuition for the quarter. (This paragraph has been updated to note that Portland State's honors college's differential tuition covers all classes a student takes.)

The college has a specific mission of providing educational access to working-class and middle-class students, said its director, Brenda Glascott. So it has kept its fees low. But it can be difficult to balance low fees against the need to raise money for co-curricular experiences and study abroad programs.

“Because we’re so interested in making sure that honors education is accessible for all high-achieving students at Portland State, we don’t want to create a situation where there’s a paywall,” Glascott said. “Our point is to build those bridges for students to graduate and professional schools -- to open those doors to them.”

The trade-off is that Portland State’s honors college is not as well resourced or robustly built as some others. It has six core faculty members. But it doesn’t own its own dormitory.

Public universities are fighting to put forward a value proposition that is strong enough to win quality students, said Donald Norris, president of Strategic Initiatives Inc., a management consulting firm. Doing so in a financially sustainable way is difficult when state appropriations lag, he said. Legislatures can push back on differential tuition and fees.

Institutions have sometimes been reluctant to introduce differential pricing because it is difficult to put in place and opens the door to criticism, Norris continued. Yet it can be a way to gain a competitive edge if they have improved the value proposition to students and parents.

“If you have an honors college that is offering a differential experience with different student-to-faculty ratios, no large lecture sessions, no large amphitheaters for students, then I think it’s probably pretty justifiable,” Norris said.

“I think that differential tuition for differential value is something that’s going to have to be on the table more and more,” Norris said. “I don’t know what the end point is.”


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