Amid the enrollment boom at community colleges , two-year honors programs have become more popular and – in some cases – more competitive than ever among traditional-age students.
Highline Community College , in Washington State, piloted its program in 2003 with 15 students. It grew to 100 students in 2005. This semester, it has more than 250 students. Barbara Clinton, director of Highline's honors program, said that 95 percent of students who complete at least 15 hours of honors credit go on to graduate from a four-year institution. Cape Cod Community College , in Massachusetts, started an honors program for the first time last semester and has 88 students enrolled, with plans to grow.
Last year, the National Collegiate Honors Council  – a professional association of undergraduate honors programs and colleges – had 167 community college members, representing more than 13 percent of its membership. Though this was the first year the association began asking its members to self-identify as either two- or four-year institutions, there is no question among its officials that the number of community college programs has grown and will continue to do so.
"Although every honors program is different, a typical honors program consists of a sequence of seminar courses that either supplements or substitutes for a student’s general education or distribution requirements," reads the council's definition  of these programs. "Many honors programs and colleges include a capstone project or thesis. Honors programs are available for students in most majors, and rarely require students to take more courses or credits than non-honors students. Students who complete an honors program or college typically receive honors designation on their transcripts and/or diplomas."
Phi Theta Kappa , an honor society for community college students, has chapters at 1,250 two-year institutions around the world. However, induction into the honor society is not predicated on participation in an honors program with its own separate and advanced coursework; 43.5 percent of its chapters reported that their institution had an honors program last year.
Rod Risley, executive director of Phi Theta Kappa, noted that he has witnessed the spread of honors programs  to more of the society’s chapters.
“What we’ve typically seen during recessionary periods is more non-traditional-age students enrolling in community colleges,” Risley said. “These past two years have been very important, though, because what we’ve seen is more full-time, traditional-age students enrolling. What this is reflecting is not just an increase in the number of high school graduates but that more and more of these traditional-age students are electing to go to community colleges first. They see these honors programs as attractive recruitment tools, but also as a track to a selective or highly selective institution.… There’s an interesting dynamic among millennial students; they’re prone to stay closer to home. Why not stay home, pay less for the first two years of college and get access to these selective or highly selective institutions?”
Attracting University-Bound Students
The 36-year-old honors program  at Lee College, located 22 miles east of Houston, saw record enrollment in its four honors courses last fall. John Britt, honors program coordinator and history professor, said he received about 100 applicants for the 70 slots in the program, and said that he expects the process to become more competitive in future semesters. In recent years, he said, the program has attracted more students who have turned down admission to nearby four-year institutions for financial reasons.
“More and more of our students in the program are coming here because they can’t afford to go off elsewhere,” Britt said. “Right now, I have students who were admitted to the University of Texas [at Austin] and Baylor [University] who couldn’t do it right now because they didn’t have enough money, even with scholarships.… These students also realize that, when they get ready to transfer, this program will help them with its articulation agreements.”
The Art & Phyllis Grindle Honors Institute  at Seminole State College of Florida has seen its enrollment more than double in the past five years. In 2005, the program enrolled 73 students; last fall, it enrolled 168 students.
Laura Ross, director of the honors program, said the college has been able to expand the capacity of the program and further market it thanks to a $1 million donation it received from a local businessman in 2006.
“Some of the growth might be the economy,” Ross said. “Also, it might be that some students weren’t aware of the program before. We've done a good job of making more of them aware of it before and when they get here.”
The honors program at Seminole State limits its class sizes to 22 – at least five students fewer than the average at the college – and gives some merit aid to all its students, based on the number of honors courses they take. “Right now, we’re fine and taking care of all of our students,” Ross said. “We may reach a point where we’re not able to give out as much scholarship money if we have more and more students in our program. We haven’t put a limit on it at this point. But, if we get to 250 students, I would be concerned that we wouldn't be able to serve all of our students.”
Seattle Central Community College is among the many two-year institutions planning to add an honors college. Nada Oakley, the college’s Phi Theta Kappa adviser and an English professor, said the college's hope is to start the program in the winter term of 2011. She said that Seattle Central’s large population of transfer students, many of whom expressed to the college a desire for an honors program, should make this a popular option.
The program will start small, Oakley added, with 25 students in its first term. She expects that about 50 to 60 students will apply for these spots. The future expansion of the program, she said, depends on institutional finances.
“I’d like to call our honors program a populist movement,” Oakley said. “We did some research and this is what we came up with. Students wanted a program that was a combination of honors courses, leadership building activities as well as some sort of research project. We’ve also had the buy-in of a lot of faculty, too. … I imagine this’ll turn into a destination for local high school students as well as local adults looking to start over for whatever reason.”