More than one person told Chris Romer that his vision of creating a national network of high-quality community college programs and selective four-year colleges committed to enrolling their graduates was folly. It's hard enough to get community colleges and elite public and private colleges in a given area to articulate transfer agreements, let alone create something on a national scale, he was told.
But the American Honors  program that Romer and colleagues unveiled early this year  has indeed created such a network, and it is beginning to bear fruit. Twenty-seven colleges, including highly selective private colleges such as Amherst and Swarthmore Colleges and selective publics like Purdue University and the University of California at Los Angeles, have joined the American Honors Network, in which they have agreed (with varying degrees of commitment) to recruit and enroll students transferring from the honors colleges established by the network's two-year partners.
That group of two-year colleges is growing, too, with New Jersey's Mercer County Community College and Union County College today joining the original institutions, Community Colleges of Spokane and Ivy Tech Community College, in starting honors programs with administrative support from American Honors.
"We're pleased with the progress we've made in 18 months," said Romer, president of American Honors, part of the venture capital-funded Quad Learning. "This network of excellent four-year colleges and universities is going to increase opportunities for some of the super bright students at our community college partners."
From Concept to Reality
The idea behind American Honors is a seemingly simple and noncontroversial one: help to create better avenues for the nearly half of all American students who start off at a community college to eventually make their way to some of the best four-year colleges.
Few things in higher education are simple, though. Community college and four-year systems within states sometimes struggle to work out seamless transfer articulation agreements, and many selective private and flagship public universities continue to enroll disproportionately small numbers of community college and low-income students, despite significant rhetoric promising otherwise.
The American Honors Network
- Amherst College
- Auburn University
- Brandeis University
- Connecticut College
- Denison University
- DePauw University
- Georgetown University, School of Continuing Studies
- George Mason University
- George Washington University
- Gonzaga University
- Illinois Institute of Technology
- Lafayette College
- Middlebury College
- Mount Holyoke College
- Occidental College
- Ohio State University
- Purdue University
- Royal Roads University
- Smith College
- Swarthmore College
- University of Arizona
- University of California at Los Angeles
- University of Puget Sound
- University of Rochester
- Wabash College
- Whittier College
- Whitworth University
And while there is lots of talk about seeding innovative new ideas in higher education -- and lots of monied interests stepping up to try to bring those ideas to fruition -- some of them struggle to run the gauntlet of the accreditation and regulatory system. One recent example of an experiment that ran into regulatory trouble -- Ivy Bridge College, a partnership between the private Altius Education and the nonprofit Tiffin University to create an online associate degree program -- has more than a little in common with American Honors.
The American Honors vision is to wrap a rigorous academic honors program developed and delivered by the host community colleges themselves within a bundle of American Honors-provided advising and other services that exceed what financially strapped two-year institutions usually manage themselves. (For instance, the programs have one academic adviser for every 100 or so students, compared to a ratio of about 1,000-to-1 normally.)
American Honors plays no role in curriculum development or delivery, and has no plans to become an accredited institution itself, Romer emphasized repeatedly in a 20-minute interview Thursday.
The curriculum is delivered in a blended format, with both on-ground and synchronously delivered online courses; academic and other advising is delivered both online and in person, and mandatory "transfer coaching" is done face-to-face. Students pay tuition that's 40 to 50 percent higher than the norm for their institutions, but still well below the price points of most four-year public institutions.
Community Colleges of Spokane  and Ivy Tech are both ramping up their programs (and both received word from their regional accreditors in recent days that the programs had been approved, a not-insignificant hurdle given this year's brouhaha over Ivy Bridge).
Spokane enrolled about 50 students in a pilot program last winter, and graduates were accepted at institutions such as Cornell, Stanford and Vanderbilt Universities and the University of Washington. The system's two campuses enrolled 147 students this fall, drawn from 767 applicants, says Lisa Avery, vice provost for strategic partnerships at Spokane. About a third of those applicants probably would have considered coming to the community college even if the honors program did not exist, Avery says, but she's quite confident that the student who moved to the area from California to enroll would not have.
Ivy Tech has expanded its American Honors program from 50 students at its Indianapolis campus last winter to 130 students at three of its regions (adding Fort Wayne and Lafayette) this fall, says Beth Borst, founding director of the honors program there. Ivy Tech hopes to add two more regional campuses to the mix next fall, and to go statewide a year later.
Borst says Ivy Tech officials are gratified by the additional student support that they are able to offer students because of the partnership with American Honors. "Any time you can add an extra layer of services, an extra support net, that’s always good," she says.
Spokane's Avery says she has seen initial skepticism among some faculty members about teaming up with a private company melt away as they see the quality of the students' work. "There was this initial 'Why are we doing this and spending time on it?' " she says. "But for all the great stuff we do around coaching here, the real magic happens in the classroom, and our faculty are really impressed by the students."
Motivations and Opportunities
Ultimately, though, she and others acknowledge, American Honors will rise or fall based on the outcomes of its graduates, which is why the creation of the newly announced transfer network is so important. The roster of institutions includes some, like Middlebury and Swarthmore Colleges, that have historically had few transfer students but have been striving to inject more socioeconomic and other diversity into their student bodies.
Whittier College was much like those places five years ago, when President Sharon Herzberger -- concerned about the growing price of college -- set out to double the proportion of community college transfers at the California institution. Whittier worked closely with local two-year institutions, and community college transfers now make up 15 percent of its new students each year (and perform comparably to those who start at the institution, Herzberger says).
The arrangement with American Honors largely replicates the arrangements it has with its local two-year institutions, but Herzberger says she was particularly impressed by the honors curriculum at the American Honors institutions.
Whittier is among the institutions that has committed to enrolling any graduates of the American Honors programs that meet certain admissions criteria; other colleges in the network, says Romer of American Honors, have just agreed at first to take a close look at the programs' graduates.
"They have different motivations for being in this program," Romer says, "but all of them see an opportunity to connect to top students who they might not otherwise find."
And for officials at the community colleges, it's all about opportunity for their students.
"If this helps our students transfer to a school they may have not gone to before," says Borst of Ivy Tech, "that opens up some doors for them."