Honors college innovations: Programs to model

How four institutions are approaching programs for advanced students

Administrators at Virginia Tech recently lowered, slightly, the grade point component of their honors college requirements.

The goal wasn’t to make the accelerated honors college program slightly easier, but to take the focus off the academic ultra-competitiveness that swept students up in high school, says Paul Knox, the three-year-old college’s founding dean.

Virginia Tech’s adjustments represent some of the varied enhancements that college and university leaders are making to further distinguish their honors colleges from each institution’s standard four-year program.

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While some have created entire campuses and living-learning communities for honors colleges, others blend advanced courses into students’ general education.

“Honors environments are one of the few where students can work together across disciplines in the ways they’ll be working in graduate school or in a company,” Knox says. “Our message to students is, ‘Take tough courses and learn by failing—just don’t fail too often.’”

A tight-knit honors college

The approximately 4,000 honors students at The University of Maryland truly live for their studies. Maryland’s honors college comprises seven living-learning communities, each anchored by a specific subject, such as cybersecurity, design, humanities and entrepreneurship.


Also unique is that most of the students are freshmen and sophomores. The idea is for the honors college to give students an accelerated and immersive jump start on their majors, says Stephan Blatti, the college’s associate director and director of University Honors.

“As juniors and seniors, many will move into departmental honors programs and start work on an honors thesis or research.”

The honors cybersecurity community, for example, is the first of its kind in the country and has been heavily funded by defense contractor Northrop Grumman. The company has a strong interest in helping develop skilled cybersecurity specialists, Blatti says.

Although students live in special residence halls or on designated floors in other buildings, there is no extra fee to join the honors college. The living component creates a tight-knit connection between students and faculty as they work on projects together, Blatti says.

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Program administrators are now hiring more staff to organize student life and co-curricular activities that will likely focus on academic counseling and career planning. Students at Maryland—and across the nation—need more guidance in those middle years, Blatti says.

“That’s often when students are making hard decisions, deciding to pick up a major or a minor, or to study abroad or pursue internships,” he says. “And that also tends to be when we don’t do as good of a job in advising them.”

Honors colleges and the Green New Deal

Virginia Tech’s honors program became the honors college three years ago, as part of the university’s effort to be more innovative in a challenging environment of decreased public funding and increased skepticism toward higher education.

Virginia Tech’s honors students take courses in workshop settings where they grapple with complex problems and learn to work proficiently in teams.
Virginia Tech’s honors students take courses in workshop settings where they grapple with complex problems and learn to work proficiently in teams.

At the same time, the vision was for the honors college to be more than just a mechanism for high performing students to enhance their rÁ©sumÁ©s or turbo charge their grade point averages, says Knox, the founding dean. “It’s a workshop setting,” he says. “Students are grappling with complex problems and learning to work and be proficient as a team.”

One of the newest workshops, designed for 12 to 15 students, is called the Innovation and Discovery Studio. It focuses on the concept of the “Green New Deal” and is taught in a large, open space that used to be a university ballroom. Content covers policy, design, economy, environmental justice and other issues, and it brings together students and faculty from several related disciplines.

The college, which doesn’t charge any additional fees, also brings businesses and other organizations into its transdisciplinary studio setting to pitch problems to students, Knox says.

A nonprofit, for example, asked teams of students to figure out how to facilitate and measure economic mobility.

“Here’s a moment where we can step forward, and provide a very strong contribution to national economy,” Knox says.

The importance of eating together

Leaders at Arizona State University have designed Barrett Honors College to serve as a smaller, more tightly-knit residential campus in the midst of a huge public institution.

Barrett’s dean, Mark Jacobs, spearheaded this mission when he came to the university in the early 2000s from Swarthmore College, the selective liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania.

During his tenure, the honors college moved onto its own 9-acre, $140 million campus, which was made possible through a public-private partnership. The college now has 7,400 students and seven of its own buildings, with classrooms, residence halls and a courtyard for outdoor activities.

Barrett connects students with several levels of academic advising. Honors students meet with an academic advisor in their major and also have faculty honors advisors who guide them through course selection and planning for graduate school.

Barrett has also gotten some attention—and student pushback—because students are charged an annual fee, which has risen from $500 to $2,000 over the last several years.

State funding has dropped, and even with the fee, attending Barrett remains far less costly for Arizona residents than attending a selective private institution. Also, Jacobs says, Barrett graduates are highly competitive when it comes to graduate schools and career potential. “If you build your honors college into something that has some real value, then you’re foolish not to charge a fee of some sort.”

How to serve the state, too

Unlike at other institutions, Albert Dorman Honors College at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark doesn’t grant degrees. The college’s 730 students take a portion of their general education courses and requirements for their majors in the honors college.

Students at Albert Dorman Honors College at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark can also take courses in specialized tracks, which include civic leadership, medical humanities and research.
Students at Albert Dorman Honors College at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark can also take courses in specialized tracks, which include civic leadership, medical humanities and research.

The classes tend to be smaller, with more independent work and opportunities to learn alongside professionals from the business world and local government, says Louis I. Hamilton, the dean.

For example, students in one course worked with the Newark’s Water & Sewer Utilities department to earn environmental engineering certifications.

Students can also take courses in specialized honors college tracks, which include civic leadership, medical humanities and research, among others. Research students begin working in labs during their first or second years, and apply for summer research grants.

Honor students also commit to 60 hours of public service a year—half on campus and half in the community. They may join student council or a university committee, or work with the homeless in Newark or teach coding at local schools.

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The college receives about 2,200 applications for 150 open seats each year. The university provides scholarships to Pell Grant and first-generation students. And this funding can be supplemented by a mayor’s scholarship offered to graduates of Newark Public Schools.

“We’ve had to find new ways to make sure we are serving the state as effectively as we can by bringing in a strong and diverse group of students,” Hamilton says.

Using NYC as a learning lab

New York City itself is the instructional “secret ingredient” at Macaulay Honors College, says Mary C. Pearl, the dean.

Students at the college, part of the City University of New York system, take four interdisciplinary seminars that focus on the arts, environment, people and culture of the metropolis. One seminar is called the “People of New York City.” Students will study topics such as the city’s economy, the daily commute and even food. In the science seminar, students survey animal and plant life somewhere in the city.

And in the culminating course, called the Future of New York, students propose solutions to persistent urban challenges such as housing and transportation, and then make presentations to elected officials.

Macaulay’s 2,200 students enroll in one of eight of CUNY’s other colleges, and take most of their courses on that campus. If they are New York City residents, they pay no tuition. Pearl says, “We want to be agents of access and transformation.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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