The problem with honors colleges

In Sunday’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Frank Bruni highlights the story of Ronald Nelson who spurned the Ivy League in favor of the University of Alabama’s Honors College. The title of Bruni’s piece, A Prudent College Path, sums up his argument that students and parents should consider the more cost effective and still high quality path of Nelson. While pursuing public university honors programs may make sense for individual students, the problem with honors colleges is the impact of the trend on our higher education system more generally.

Photo credit: University of Alabama

I taught two classes in the Honors College during my time on the faculty at UA. I found the students quite capable and I appreciated the small class size (class sections were limited to 15 students). 

Bruni rightly hits the most significant aspect of Nelson’s decision to choose Alabama over Ivy League schools writing:

“Nelson’s decision taps into a striking development in higher education. More and more public schools are starting, expanding, refining and successfully promoting honors programs, and particularly honors colleges, that give students some of the virtues and perks of private schools without some of the drawbacks, such as exorbitant tuition and an enclave of extreme privilege.”

Although I might disagree with his last point, I argue that these programs are primarily about attracting the most desirable students (those of high academic ability and wealth). While honors programs may well improve student engagement and academic achievement, I am increasingly concerned about the have and have-not academic experience that honors programs help promote.

In order to attract and keep the best students, honors programs provide amazing opportunities. Honors students receive numerous perks and academic experiences that simply are not available to the rest of the student body.

Bruni’s piece rightly raises some of these concerns, but I think insufficiently addresses the problems with the honors college trend.

I enjoyed having my class of 15 honors students, but how many sections of 50 or 75 or 100 had to be taught to compensate for my small sized class.

Honors colleges are the higher education equivalent of premium economy seats that airlines offer today. I get more leg room, early boarding, and a better drink menu. It isn’t first class, but it isn’t riding in the back of the aircraft either.

Just like airlines, honors college enrollments are a huge economic advantage. First, you are bringing in students that improve your entering class profile which has benefits in the rankings and prestige game. Second, these students receive some merit-based financial aid, but not typically the full ride packages that the very top of the class receives (aka first class). Third, these students are often out-of-state which means they pay more than in-state students even when accounting for merit aid.

From an individual student perspective, Bruni is right that paying for a public university honors college experience is a reasonable answer over an elite private university.

However, we must acknowledge that the honors college trend is not about providing a small college experience inside a large state school (a frequent recruiting mantra of such programs).

Rather, honors colleges are simply a response by universities to the escalation of student consumerism. They create divides in the academic experiences of students and limit the resources available to the entire student body.

I don’t fault the honors program directors, faculty that teach in these programs, or administrators that support or grow them. All of these groups are doing the best they can within the current environment, particularly the challenges facing public universities.

Many honors colleges provide a wonderful academic experience for students fortunate enough to participate in their programs.

Yet, we also must recognize that honors colleges are primarily about responding to consumerism within higher education and demonstrate the influence of attempting to meet students demands can influence the academic mission of colleges and universities.

This is the real problem with honors colleges.