Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Understanding Honors Programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs): An Exploratory Study

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Understanding Honors Programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs): An Exploratory Study

Article excerpt

Often when one reads about historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), one hears about their role in uplifting underprepared Afincan American students. This role is, in fact, accurate as the majority of HBCUs have large numbers of low-income, first-generation students who have often been left behind by the primary and secondary school systems. Seventy-four percent of HBCU students receive Pell Grants, indicating the level of poverty in the families from which they hail (Gasman, 2013). HBCUs meet these students where they are and work diligently to get them to college-level proficiency and provide them with a globally competitive education. While much focus remains on this noble task, often neglected are the presence and experiences of the high-achieving students who attend HBCUs. We know very little about these students for several reasons. First, the majority of research on African Americans and HBCUs operates with a deficit mentality (Fries-Britt, 2004; Harper, 2005). Second, there is very little research on HBCU honors programs and most high-achieving students who participate in these programs after graduation pursue advanced degrees (Harper, 2005).

Much of HBCU literature focuses on historical accomplishments and contributions or challenges in administration, leadership, and resources. However, there has been a growing body of work examining HBCUs, their practices, and their students through a non-deficit lens (Harper, 2005; Palmer & Gasman, 2008). Also, honor students, in general, and African American honor students, more specifically, have most often been researched to highlight their academic talent or resilience (Fries-Britt, 2004; Griffin, 2006; Harper, 2005). Little is said about the role that the institution, institutional policies, and institutional practices play in the student's experience. The fact that many HBCUs have thriving honors programs and very talented students who are attracted to these institutions for these programs is often overlooked; their voices are lost in the literature. In order to fully understand the dynamics of HBCUs, we must explore it from various angles and through various programs. Furthermore, knowing more about HBCU honors programs will begin to give insight into high-achieving students, a majority of them Black at HBCUs, and the practices that aid in these high-achieving students' attraction, retention, and persistence at these institutions.

This article explores the curriculum, infrastructure, and students associated with HBCU honors programs. Using the survey method to capture this information, we provide the first comprehensive study of these programs to date.

Literature Review

High-achieving students make purposeful choices when it comes to attending college. Although the Ivy League schools and the most highly selective elite institutions are often top choices for highachieving students, honors programs at colleges and universities that may not top the rankings still attract these students (Seifert et al., 2007). Increased competition within the higher education context created the desire for institutions to enroll, persist, and graduate the best and brightest students. This increased competition initiated the creation of honors programs, specifically "for those institutions that are not able to increase their overall selectivity ... as a means to market themselves to highachieving students" (Seifert et al., 2007, p. 57).

Honors programs vary from institution to institution (Seifert et. al, 2007). There are universitywide programs, honors colleges, and departmental programs. Therefore, the literature regarding honors programs is neither vast nor concentrated in one area. Much of the literature facilitates a discussion of how to define honors students and programs, as well as gain a better understanding of these programs (Hébert & McBee, 2007; Owens, 2010). Assessment along with varying views and approaches to the assessment of honors programs are also topics found in honors program literature (Cosgrove, 2004; Otero & Spurrier, 2005; Hébert & McBee, 2007; Tallent-Runnels, Shaw, & Thomas, 2007). …

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