Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Assessing Success in Honors: Getting beyond Graduation Rates

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Assessing Success in Honors: Getting beyond Graduation Rates

Article excerpt

An honors curriculum with realistic graduation requirements should have a respectable graduation rate. This number, when low, can indicate significant problems in the program. But a high graduation rate does not necessarily indicate success. A quality honors program, especially one that remains attentive to students' ability to thrive, might have better measures available for judging impact and effectiveness. After all, manipulating a graduation rate is easy: make the curriculum excessively convenient and lower standards. While some honors curricula are perhaps unnecessarily rigid or unusually difficult, the faculty and administrators of most quality programs have managed to create a curriculum with standards and requirements that the majority of honors-type students are able to achieve. Even so, honors requirements must represent challenges. Aristotle reminds us in Nichomachean Ethics, "it is also hard work to be excellent" (51), and thus it is important that honors achievements remain admirable and its requirements adequately aspirational.

Given these facts, many students who enter honors will lack the desire or ability to graduate from the program, but this is no reason to automatically assume that honors has failed these students. In fact, I contend that one of the best measures of honors' success and effectiveness can be discovered by assessing this group. If directors and deans could demonstrate that students who have "touched" honors graduated from the university at a higher rate, accomplished more, were more fully engaged in university life, and demonstrated higher satisfaction rates with the institution than their peers who never joined honors, then honors administrators would have powerful evidence that their work promotes individual and institutional successes regardless of honors' own graduation rate. Moreover, results from such assessment might enhance the positioning of honors within the university as its role in helping the institution achieve excellence could be measured in areas beyond the program. Several basic and tested mechanisms are potentially useful to a program desiring to assess itself based on such metrics.


Student success starts by matching a student with an appropriate program. Since one of the necessary conditions for graduation from honors is generally a minimum G.P.A., a program has the responsibility to make sure that a student's academic record predicts meeting that standard. This kind of prediction becomes more important if honors has a rich social structure and residential community. Accepting a student at risk of failing means potentially removing a student whose social identity may be constructed around inclusion in this community. Should first-year students make all of their friends and identify future roommates in honors, removal of these students can have significant emotional consequences. The first step of the process, then, is to identify the best predictors of student success in the program and accept students who are clearly capable of meeting these standards.

Using only grades and test scores, however, can be highly problematic. Using only quantitative admissions metrics guarantees eliminating good candidates and perpetuating certain social injustices, but this problem can be remedied via other mechanisms. Peter Sederberg notes several strategies such as "creating a path through which students can transfer into honors after their first semester or year; opening honors courses to non-honors students on a space available basis; or creating programs that are designed from conception to include both honors and non-honors students" (10). Admissions practices such as these allow programs to include outstanding students whom metrics initially exclude. Moreover, these students have a lower risk of failure and the associated emotional distress since they have already demonstrated that they are willing and able to succeed on campus.

Admitting students with outstanding high school records or who demonstrate ability once on campus both mitigate the danger of unnecessary student failures. …

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