Honors ed is changing to grow more accessible (opinion)

In a recent blog post for Inside Higher Ed, Steven Mintz asks, “Can Public Universities Scale Honors-Like Experiences for a Larger Number of Undergraduates?” He argues, “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.”

As two leaders of honors colleges, we agree. And, indeed, we and many others are doing just that on our college campuses. The issue is not that public honor colleges fail to reach more students. It’s that too few people know what progress has already been made in this area and how the community honors have changed over the past two decades.

For example, Mintz might be surprised to know that Suketu Bhavsar, former director of the Kellogg Honors College at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and (at the time) president-elect of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC), challenged honors program Administrators at a 2020 meeting to ask themselves, “What would be wrong with allowing anyone into our honors programs and colleges if they wanted to join?”

Indeed, Bhavsar was part of a national task force launched by NCHC prior to the pandemic that eventually produced a position paper titled, “Honors Enrollment Management: Toward a Theory and Practice of Inclusion.” (We both served as co-chairs of this task force.) The paper challenged honors programs and colleges to reimagine honors education to make it more inclusive in many of the ways that Mintz suggests, recommending, for example, that honors programs be advertised to all potential students rather than “a select few”; that “invitation-only” pathways be reimagined in favor of open application processes; that programs use holistic honors admission practices including optional test, flexible test or blind test approaches; that they develop seamless options for transfer students; that they foster relationships with other campus and community groups; and that they eliminate barriers such as application or enrollment fees or minimum entrance requirements.

More recently, NCHC adopted a sweeping redesign of national standards for honors education that had been in place for three decades. Those new benchmarks have significant implications for the roughly 1,500 institutions of higher education that have honors programs and honors colleges on their campuses.

While there may be some legacy perceptions of honors education as narrow, elite and exclusive, these new standards present honors as inclusive, innovative, relevant and strategically positioned to advance institutional goals (if not lead to some of them). The standards, which emphasize inclusive excellence, holistic admission processes and curricular flexibility, also reflect changes that have already been taking place in honors education, especially over the past decade. At our own institutions, for example, Northern Kentucky University’s honors college helped lead the larger university toward more holistic approaches to admissions processes. At Westminster College, in Utah, a robust strategic diversity plan and inclusive approaches to recruiting and admissions has led to an honors college population with a higher percentage of students of color than the institution’s overall undergraduate population in 2020-21. At both of our institutions, honors students now make up nearly 20 percent of entering first-year classes.

In these situations, honors programs have begun to serve a larger and larger population of students. While Mintz says that “most college honors are relatively small”—a claim that underpins his primary argument of honors as exclusionary—the data simply doesn’t support that assertion. A national survey tied to the forthcoming monograph Honors Colleges in the 21st Century (edited by Badenhausen), which collects data from more than 150 honors colleges in the US, shows a mean size of the undergraduate honors student population at R-1 doctoral universities in excess of 2,000 (the exact data is embargoed until publication). While Mintz criticizes “exclusive merit scholarships,” the data also shows that a majority of honors colleges at R-1 institutions base scholarship decisions on merit and need.

Beyond entry points for traditional first-year students, both our institutions also have pathways into honors for transfer students. In fact, this is a fairly standard feature of today’s honors colleges, even though Mintz criticizes honors colleges for “closing their doors to transfer students.” In some respects, outdated accounts of honors education by writers outside of honors contribute to the very perception that so many of us within honors are working to overturn, primarily in the hope that more students will envision themselves as welcome in these spaces.

The new standards, “The Shared Principles and Practices of Honors Education,” will help drive further change. While the document is just newly posted to the NCHC website and contains a number of links to useful resources, it will eventually be built out with a full range of tool kits, research articles, position papers and other resources that will help colleges and universities undertake the work of ushering honors education into its next phase of development and hopefully informs national conversations about honors. It will also, we hope, spur honors programs and colleges to share the kind of innovative work that is already happening on campuses across the country.

As many honors programs and colleges around the country witness record numbers of applications and record enrollments, they can provide insights into other parts of the university. For example, honors programs can help break down silos and foster new academic partnerships that emphasize transdisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary perspectives. They can also spark innovative academic programming by bringing disciplines across campus into conversation with one another. At the University of Houston, the honors college has become home to seven interdisciplinary minors, such as data and society, energy and sustainability, leadership studies, and medicine and society, to name a few. Jonathan Williamson, associate dean for academic programs and faculty affairs in the honors college, explains, “Because honors is not bound by the disciplinary silos of the modern university, we can offer students opportunities to explore complex societal issues from multiple perspectives.”

Honors programs can also demonstrate the advantages of working across academic and nonacademic units on campus. The Honors Living-Learning Community at Rutgers University at Newark is redefining the notion of honors on its campus. The program includes a collaboration between honors and the Office of Campus Housing to build a brand-new residential facility and provide honors students—half of whom come from Newark, NJ—with scholarships for room and board. The program has received national attention for its success.

It is also an advantage to have an administrator honors at the table when talking about universitywide student success. At Northern Kentucky University, the honors dean takes part in the university’s student success analytics team. According to Ryan Padgett, assistant vice president for enrollment and student success at Northern Kentucky, “When universities discuss strengthening student success or mapping out a robust coordinated care model, they should look no further than their college honors. Their approach to holistic student support necessitates cultivating campus partnerships, demonstrating progressive outcomes and developing buy-in to the value and ROI of programming. From recruitment to job readiness, the Honors College is continually monitoring the pulse of the student’s experience.”

For better or worse, honors programs and colleges have sometimes been deemed the best-kept secrets on college campuses. Indeed, most colleagues are not familiar with the broad array of honors professional organizations or the wealth of published scholarship on honors education. That’s partly the fault of those of us in honor. To address that disconnect, we offer suggestions for how the honors community can better engage campus partners and how universities can better engage honors educators.

  • Honors leaders should invite non-honors colleagues to honors conferences. A number of organizations offer professional development that focuses on honors and broader themes of student success. These conferences are open to anyone with higher education and include organizations such as the National Collegiate Honors Council, Honors Education at Research Universities and the National Society for Minorities in Honors. Many of the topics covered in those meetings—culturally responsive approaches to advising, community building through peer mentoring, inclusive approaches to admissions—have wide applicability outside honors.
  • Universities should research into honors education and how it relates to broader student success initiatives on campuses. In essence, what can college campuses learn about high-impact practices within honors that then can be scaled to more students?
  • Honors faculty and staff should engage non-honors communities by sharing their experiences and research about honors at non-honors conferences and in non-honors-focused publications.

Like much higher education, honors programs and colleges have been in transition over the past few decades. For honors programmes, this has been a time of great innovation and significant growth. We agree with Mintz that honors education should be about more than the perks and that it should serve a larger number of students. But that work has already begun.

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