At least as much as the curricular or extracurricular opportunities that an honors program offers to students, its admissions and retention policies determine the teaching and learning that take place within it. In defining which students will be welcome in the community of honors, administrators broadcast their values before students even apply. If grades and test scores are the criteria for admission, then students can anticipate that the program will hold such competitive rankings in high regard. The higher the required grades and scores, the more rigorous the competition that students can expect. Students should also anticipate that retention policies will reflect admissions policies and that strong academic performance as reflected in grades will be a--probably the--necessary requisite to remain in the program.
As much as admissions and retention policies are signals to students of what to expect, they are also assertions, either conscious or unconscious, of how the administrators and faculty of a program define excellence. A mix of different admissions criteria--perhaps essays, recommendations, service projects, and interviews as well as grades and scores--implies a definition of excellence that might be harder to test and so might also imply a less stringent retention policy; it might also imply that students will be part of a diverse community where more will be expected of them than good grades.
While educational philosophies and definitions of excellence matter, other complicating factors come into play: external pressures to limit or, more likely, increase the size of a program; the negative implications of low retention and graduation rates; the presence (or not) of underrepresented minorities on campus or in the region; the institutional mission; legislative mandates about in-state or out-of-state recruitment; limits on class size; and a varying availability of faculty members to teach the requisite number of courses.
Consequently, the Forum on Admissions and Retention addresses a fraught issue for any honors program or college--an issue that should ideally be examined as frequently as possible. The Forum invited this kind of examination in its Call for Papers:
The lead essay for the Forum ... is by Jerry Herron of Wayne State
University. His essay--titled "Notes toward an Excellent
Marxist-Elitist Honors Admissions Policy"--argues for quantifiable
measurements of the interconnections between admissions policies
and other data such as retention and graduation rates or GPAs as a
means to demonstrate the value-added of honors. Contributions to
the Forum may--but need not --respond to Herron's essay or the
issues he addresses.
Questions that Forum contributors might consider include: Are data
available that show a significant correlation between admissions
criteria and retention? Should admissions and retention criteria
for honors be absolute or flexible, objective or subjective,
impersonal or personal, and why? Should admissions criteria focus
on academic excellence or social justice or a mixture of the two?
Is the quality of an honors program determined by who gets in or by
who stays in and graduates? Does a focus on measurable data in
admissions and retention limit a program's potential for innovation
and experimentation? What is the ideal mix of admissions criteria
(e.g., SAT/ACT, GPA, extracurricular activities, letters of
recommendation, personal interviews)? Should conventional academic
criteria necessarily take precedence over non-academic talents in,
for instance, the arts, athletics, or community service? What do
admissions and retention criteria tell students about the program
to which they are applying? Is using the SAT or ACT as an
admissions criterion a way of shifting the burden of selection to a
testing service? Is using GPA as an admissions criterion a way of
shifting the burden of selection to high school teachers? …