Honors Programs in Community Colleges: A Review of Recent Issues and Literature

By Byrne, Joseph P. | Community College Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Honors Programs in Community Colleges: A Review of Recent Issues and Literature


Byrne, Joseph P., Community College Review


This review of honors programs and their curricula in comprehensive community colleges is based upon an examination of prescriptive literature outlining such programs and on reports about a number of them, either by researchers or participants. In all, information related to 38 colleges and districts in 19 states was reviewed (see the Appendix to this article for a list). Four major questions framed this study: Why did those colleges that have honors programs choose to do so? What are the stated goals of honors programs? How are honors curricula structured? Do the programs succeed?

Although some of the reports include at least implicit responses to all of these questions, most do not. Because published reports cover a 24-year period from 1974 to the present and new programs today have the advantage of building on two decades of other schools' experiences, comparing programs per se seems inappropriate. No source with which this author is familiar, not even the standard National Profile of Community Colleges: Trends and Statistics, 1997-1998 (Phillipe, 1997), lists schools with honors programs or provides program outlines. Therefore, any valid comparison or statistical evaluation of contemporary programs is, at present, not possible. The handiest source is, in fact, Roueche, Parnell and Kuttler's (1997) 1,001 Exemplary Practices in America's Two- Year Colleges, which gives thumbnail sketches of 13 honors programs in nine states.

This study was designed to provide a global answer to the following question: What are honors programs doing on American community college campuses?

Why Do Community Colleges Choose to Have Honors?

In the 1960s, a strong social movement for egalitarianism manifested itself in the community college emphasis on open access and attention to less well-prepared students. By the late 1970s, however, social and economic trends forced many to consider the implications of this emphasis on access over quality. Typical of this new critique was McKeague's comment that in community colleges "bright students are often unchallenged as instructors tend to concentrate on students who are having difficulty understanding course content" (1984, p. 9).

The refrain that community colleges were serving all comers except well-prepared, highly skilled, and motivated students emerged in the mid-1980s: "In our headlong rush to attain equity for all citizens, the educational needs of our ablest and most highly motivated students were not being met by community colleges" (Behrendt, 1984, p. 3). Cohen (1985) lambasted the "perversion of the comprehensive mission of the community college into a narrow obsession with career training and serving the least able" (p. 3). Lehner (1984) lamented that the "largely ignored segment of the [community] college population has been the gifted student" (p. 3). Pflaum, Pascarella, and Duby (1985) drew on the behavioral study of R. Moos in their study of the commuter campus of the University of Illinois in Chicago. Moos developed the theory of progressive conformity, which posits that students will respond in kind to rigorous or slack peers and teachers. Hence, this indicates the obvious need for at least one program in the school that embodies high standards of academic achievement. By 1989, Skau concluded that "within the past decade, more attention has been focused on the needs of motivated high ability students and this has [led] to a greater interest in honors programs" (p. 3).

Indeed, the 1980s saw a shift in emphasis in community college culture from egalitarian access, which had largely been achieved, to academic quality (Behrendt, 1984). Higher ability students were entering community colleges because of convenience and rising costs at four-year institutions, and more mature learners were returning to school for various reasons. The 1984 ERIC Digest report on community college honors stated that such programs "serve the dual purpose of meeting the needs of a significant segment of the two-year college student body and of meeting increased public demand for educational quality" (p. …

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