Honors colleges

Large public universities are attracting top students to honors colleges, small programs that offer a liberal arts atmosphere.

For students, an honors college can be the educational equivalent of an upgrade to first class from coach — smaller classes, priority scheduling, research opportunities, and a residence hall where they can rub shoulders with fellow overachievers.

Of course, the colleges are under attack for elitism.

My sister was one of the first students at the University of Michigan’s Residential College. It’s a great program. On the other hand, one of the reasons my daughter transferred from UCLA is that the honors program wasn’t residential; there was no sense of community. And she still had trouble getting into the classes she wanted.

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  1. Bluemount says:

    Every child should participate in an elite experience that pursues an ideal once in their life. At the very least children need to understand how easily an individual can become elitist and compare it to the benefits they feel they have received. I think they also need a ‘dirty air club’. I suspect none of the kids have ever been accused of a crime and marginalized by a system who views them as inconsequential number or how it feel to be disbelieved.

  2. Two thoughts on “honors colleges”

    First, I started out in the Honors Program when I was an undergrad, but ultimately dropped it. Why? I was a science major, and there were few honors offerings in the sciences. We had to take at least 2 honors classes per semester, and once I had passed through the Gen Ed classes, it was actually going to take me LONGER to get through college as an Honors student. (And they didn’t then have the concept in place of “do an extra outside project and get honors credit in a regular class” like the Honors College at the school where I teach does now).

    Second: I’ve worked with the Honors program where I teach now, and I do admit even though I don’t generally buy into the “oh so elitist” claims, I felt distinctly uncomfortable when I saw how many enrichment opportunities – for travel, for cultural experiences – were offered to Honors students that were not offered to the regular student body (and one could make the argument that the “non-honors” student might be more in need of a little encouragement and enrichment than the Honors students, who are already mostly pretty much “gunners”). And there is a subtle “we’re better than them” attitude that I’ve gotten off of some of the Honors students, which makes me sad.

  3. The idea of an elite program should be that it gives other students something to aspire to. Why should under-achieving students want to work harder so they can be in the honors program if there aren’t some benefits to being in the program? And, by definition, elite students ARE better than other students.

  4. I’m amused that there was no mention in the article of the attention, funds, and special treatment already showered on an elite group of students at almost all major state universities. Namely, the athletically elite. Gosh, they’re actually treating the smart kids like the jocks!

  5. Bluemount says:

    Robert, I have participated in my shared of elitist opportunities and honestly I think they can be good experiences. I think all people have aspirations and everything I experience or read says that people who act on their aspirations to learn from the world around them grow from the experience. In the areas I have excelled I don’t think I was ever motivated by any program or social recognition. Maybe it was a quirk but it’s hard for me to understand why someone would. I don’t disapprove of elitism, it’s unavoidable at some level.

    I genuinely feel that young adults would willingly participate and grow from group exercises that are counter to elitism. We like the idea that youth could do volunteer work that exposes them to a broader social environment. But the personal experiences is still one of control. In the Stanford Prison Experiment what researchers found was mature people are subjected to behavior change, even when they know it’s role playing. So if we think elitist experiences have value, perhaps those experiences counter to elitism have value too.

  6. Mad Scientist says:

    Sorry, but the only value experiences counter to elitism have is to show that it is by far better to be elite than not.

    That’s why they call it “elite”.

  7. John from OK says:

    I was in the honors program at UCLA 1980-1981. There was an “honors lounge” where we could rub shoulders. It was a way for an introvert like myself to meet other right-of-the-bell-curve students. Nobody there acted elitist, although I was once put off by a classmates justification for the program: it attracts top students to the University, which it needed to maintain its “top ten ranking.” It was also generally understood that fraternity and sorority members were the elites, not the honors students.

  8. “Honors colleges” are far cheaper than athletic programs, I can tell you that much. We got some cool speakers, but I don’t think their fees were high. They also used us to pad the audience at university arts functions, as we were required to attend at least two of these per semester (the tickets were free… but the shows were mainly good. So no complaints.) They also had money one could use for study abroad (I got $1000 to help for part of a trip to Japan). I thought it was neat. However, we were invisible on campus – there was no way to tell if one was in the “Scholar” program unless you were in the particular classes or seminars. It was a huge university (North Carolina State University), and it was obvious they used this program to keep the best students from transferring to schools with bigger names (aka Duke and Chapel Hill) by keeping us intellectually stimulated.

    They had planned the program well, and it was mainly intended at the freshman/sophomore level — “Scholars” classes were spread out among the general college requirements. There were special sections for Chemistry, Bio, Physics, Calculus, English, History, etc. The general freshman classes. Then each department had their own honors program. I did it for both math and physics. You got to take masters level courses, and you were eligible to do jobs usually given to grad students (because undergrads are even cheaper!) I got to TA calculus as a junior (even lectured 3 times in class – I had more teaching experience than the prof, newly hired, did). I got a research assistant position in the physics department, and got my name on a paper. It was way cool.

    I don’t see it as elitism in the sense that those not in the program feel excluded. Most of the people I knew who weren’t in the program didn’t even know about it (I don’t think you could apply for it separately – they put you in as part of the admissions process). Those who I told about it just saw it as a bunch of extra requirements – I had to go to a weekly seminar, had to write a couple essays, had to take harder classes to fulfill the same requirements. I think it was a good way to do “tracking” at the university level, so that the people really intellectually involved, and who are at college for more than certification, have their needs met. I think I have a certificate somewhere, but it’s not something that I put on my resume. I don’t think it necessarily gets you ahead – it just makes being at a large state university more pleasant for those of the intellectual bent.

  9. Bluemount says:

    I think it was a good way to do “tracking” at the university level, so that the people really intellectually involved, and who are at college for more than certification, have their needs met.
    There is a difference between elitism and tracking. Elitism identified people who shared an interest to intensify their study. Tracking and networking seem to be catch phrases for rationalizing elitism today.
    Elitism only has a limitied value because the subject matter is mostly concrete and what we go on to do with our lives is not limited to what we did in school. Things change. Being able to place a value on elitism helps us understand what we are buying. Do we want to send our children to schools that make them feel special or are we looking for the best facilities and teachers.
    Counter elitist experiences are important because they demonstrate the shallowness of elitism. While I may enjoy keeping my distance from the maddening crowd, I do not want to interpret whatever evolves in my bubble as correct but untested truth. The only way to understand reality and fact is interacting with the real world.

  10. Mad Scientist says:

    You want a counter-elitist experience? Go to the DMV. Or to Burger King. Ride the subway. Take a bus. Fly in coach. To Europe. Get audited by the IRS. Get pulled over for speeding.

    Life is full of them, and you do not have to look very far to have one of your very own. Each day, if you wish.

  11. Steve LaBonne says:

    What genuine advancement of civilization was ever accomplished otherwise than in isolation from the “madding crowd”?