Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

They Come but Do They Finish? Program Completion for Honors Students at a Major Public University, 1998-2010

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

They Come but Do They Finish? Program Completion for Honors Students at a Major Public University, 1998-2010

Article excerpt

In recent years the option of enrolling in honors programs and colleges at major public universities has increasingly become an alternative to elite private and public institutions for some of the brightest and most academically talented high school graduates. To attract these high-achieving students, universities may offer applicants incentives such as merit scholarships, smaller classes, honors residential options, research experiences, and enrichment programs. The message to prospective students is that, by enrolling in an honors college or program, they will receive an education that rivals what would be obtained at an elite private school and at a much lower price. A consequence of this message is that, in many cases, honors programs and colleges have increasingly become a separate brand, differentiated from the larger institution as more elite and selective while delivering an enhanced educational product.

Despite controversy within the honors community about elitism as a good or bad thing for honors programs and their students (Herron; Weiner), honors programs and colleges are increasingly becoming an enrollment tool to recruit high-achieving students to public universities. A place in an honors program (a term that will include honors colleges hereafter) may tip the balance for plum college prospects who would not consider attendance at a public university without the "honors" cachet. Surveys of honors freshmen suggest that about half would have matriculated elsewhere if they had not been offered a place in the honors program (Goodstein, "A 40-year-old honors program").

The argument in favor of honors education at public universities is becoming even more persuasive as the volume of public discourse on the cost of college continues upward in the popular media (Lemann). In their recruitment pitches, universities emphasize that for high-achieving students, educational costs are likely to extend beyond the four undergraduate years to include graduate or professional-school tuitions and expenses. Therefore, enrolling in a public university's honors program enables students to conserve funds for later or share them with other deserving family members.


The messages directed at high-achieving prospective students and their families focus on what has been the most broadly discussed goal of honors education: academic enrichment. Anne Rinn (37) quotes a review of the first United States honors program at Swarthmore College, which states that it provided students with "the incentive to excellence, freedom from cramping restrictions, intimate faculty-student relationships, the demand for self-activity in education, emphasis on substance rather than credits, and the correlation of knowledge" (Brewster, 510). As honors programs have proliferated, even though they are typically more costly for universities to provide, they have been defined as a means for high-achieving students to receive enhanced learning experiences matched to their intellectual abilities (Guzy).

The goal of academic enhancement is consistent with the enrollment management goal of increasing the overall quality of the undergraduate student population by seeding it with a higher proportion of excellent students. Lanier, Pehlke, and Goodstein ("A 40-year-old honors program") have each written about the pressures from higher administrations to improve a university's rankings in, for instance, U.S. News and World Report by admitting a larger proportion of high-achieving students to the freshman class. Sederberg describes the trend among public universities to make honors programs more attractive by converting them into what some institutions view as more elite honors colleges.

Honors programs are a logical target for enhancement by universities motivated to improve the academic quality of their undergraduate populations because honors admissions criteria are often the same as the metrics used in national rankings. …

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