Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Differences between an Honors Program and Honors College: A Case Study

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Differences between an Honors Program and Honors College: A Case Study

Article excerpt

"Experience will guide us to the rules," he said. "You cannot make rules precede practical experience."

--Antoine de Saint Exupery

Honors colleges are springing up across the country. In the last several years public institutions of higher education from Vermont to Cal State Fresno and from Maine to South Florida have started honors colleges. Private universities such as Baylor, Hofstra, and Auburn have honors colleges as well (see Digby, 2002). At least one writer, Murray Sperber (2000) of Indiana University, has speculated that the primary purpose for creating such colleges is to solicit funds from one or more major donors. Others point out that the transition from program to college is primarily symbolic, signifying a stronger central commitment to honors students and honors education (Zane, 2002). More recently, Sederberg (2003) lists characteristics an honors college should have beyond a fully developed honors program. Most of these characteristics pertain to infrastructure and operations. Generalizations are difficult to make because of the individuality of various honors programs or colleges, but the truth is more complex and textured than these publications depict. There are few publications available to describe either the more subtle or substantial differences between an honors program and college.

The purpose of this article is describe the shift in practices, resources, expectations and scope as an honors program was converted to an honors college at one institution. It may provide a reference point as other programs consider such a change.

Penn State initiated its own university-wide honors program in 1980 with support from the Faculty Senate. It was designed after numerous honors programs were visited around the country and with input from seven local academic departments that had their own pre-existing honors programs. A vision for expanding the honors program was outlined in 1996 by the then-new president, Dr. Graham Spanier. In the fall of 1997, Penn State received a major gift from William A. and Joan Schreyer to found the Schreyer Honors College (SHC). Its purpose was to build upon the successful honors program already established. The gift was to be used to enrich the learning experience of students enrolled in the college and, more specifically, to nurture a global perspective and support international study with student travel grants; to add programs that would inspire responsible citizenship; to offer honors seminars across all four years of undergraduate study; to link the development of innovative honors courses to the Schreyer Institute for the Innovation in Learning (a think tank for reassessing and redesigning undergraduate education that was previously endowed by Mr. and Mrs. Schreyer); and to introduce mentors and fellows who would inspire, serve as role models and help students bridge their academic and future public lives. In return, the university was expected to enhance facilities and staff, including a dean's position. A large portion of the gift's funds was directed to scholarship endowments, with none targeted for "bricks and mortar."

Conversations about the conversion of honors programs to honors colleges tend to emphasize public visibility, reporting lines, and enhancement of the quality of applicants and matriculants (Lawrence, 2000; Mass, 2003). Yet, a list of what a program or college has or doesn't have, adds or doesn't add, tells only part of the story. Table 1 is a compilation of the characteristics and program additions made to the honors college in our case. It is admittedly dry and, by itself, unlikely to motivate other institutions to make similar changes. More important is what an honors college does that an honors program could not do. The most significant challenge and change, in our case, was one of cultural transformation. The balance of this paper describes the "before and after" differences in vision, mission, and purpose; public visibility and university reach; reporting lines; development and fundraising; operations; and, facilities. …

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