One of the largest community college systems in the country is looking into creating an honors college with free tuition and fees for high-achieving high school students who are looking to transfer to competitive four-year institutions.
Houston Community College System  administrators have discussed the possibility of starting the program by fall 2007, but the governing board has yet to formally discuss the plan, which calls for a centralization of existing university-level courses and high admissions standards.
Whereas Houston Community College accepts any Texas student with a high school diploma, the honors college would probably require students to have at least a 3.5 grade point average and an equivalent SAT score, said Maria Straus, director of learning initiatives at the college.
Public universities have long wooed the brightest in-state students with scholarships to their honors colleges, and community colleges are warming to the idea -- as many as a third now have honors programs, by some accounts. George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said that the rising cost of four-year colleges prevents some top high school graduates from starting their educations there.
Those are exactly the students that HCC's honors college would target, said Jay Aiyer, chairman of the college's Board of Trustees. “There are also the students who are extremely bright but graduate from high schools that aren’t as rigorous as others, so this is an opportunity to give them the type of classes that will prepare them," Aiyer said. “Our role is to be the ultimate gap-filler."
The idea is for students to take courses during their two years that are recognizable to four-year colleges and that would make them attractive transfer candidates. HCC already offers honors courses; the college would organize the existing courses into a variety of disciplines, Straus said.
As with any community college that considers creating an academic tier system, dissent is likely, Straus acknowledged. “We're torn between our mission of educating everyone and this program, which might be seen as not looking after the needs of the majority of Houstonians,” she said. "But if you look at our students, we are not just diverse ethnically and racially, but we are diverse academically. We need to offer something for everyone."
Thomas G. Mortenson, a senior scholar for the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, said the HCC model is ambitious. He said he is more accustomed to community colleges bragging about their direct placement of graduates with employers in the community, rather than the number of transfers to four-year universities.
Mortenson said that while he supports HCC's honors college concept, colleges can run into trouble trying to be everything to everyone.
"I have a lingering concern about how seriously community colleges are about performing lower division roles that complement a four-year college," Mortenson said. "I would expect all graduates [of HCC's honors program] to go on to these colleges. If not, I'd start asking some questions."
Boggs, the AACC president, said he supports programs like the Houston one so long as they don't take away resources from existing programs. Added John Churchill, a senior staff member at Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest undergraduate honors association: “My initial thought is that anything that inspires students to higher academic achievement is a good thing." But "it would be a shame," he said, "if one project diverted resources that could have been more widely used."
The board chairman, Aiyer, said he doesn't view the proposed college as a financial burden on the system. “Anything that is going to take away from the fundamental mission [of the system] is undesirable from our end."
Straus and Aiyer said honors college scholarships would be funded through the Houston Community College Foundation and other external sources. Upwards of 50,000 students are enrolled in the system.
Straus said an initial honors college class would consist of about 30 students, with the hope of eventually reaching 300 students.
Aiyer, who first proposed the honors college idea to HCC officials, said he would like to model the program after one at Miami Dade College . He said the trustees are expected to bring up the issue in the coming months as they finalize the 2007-8 budget.
“I think it’s an exciting concept,” said Jim Murphy, a trustee and past board chairman. “Anything that attracts the best and brightest students is a positive. The notion that one size fits all is not the case anymore."