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Honors College in an Accessible University

09 Mar Posted by in Academics, Students | Comments
Honors College in an Accessible University

Here’s an issue I admit I hadn’t thought of but should have; and it’s quite interesting. How should we consider an Honors College in a University that proudly proclaims its desire to be as accessible as possible to qualified students, to seek to include rather than exclude?

Our Honors College, which predates our new Strategic Plan, is a smash success. It was not my idea, but since its emergence from a smaller and less structured Honors program it has routinely attracted a great deal of interest from really talented students. It almost always ends up recruiting beyond its target numbers, and its students for the most part continue to perform really well from freshman year onward. Research presentations by Honors College freshmen, for example, are one of the highlights of the fall semester, and getting better all the time.

But our new Plan (also not my idea, though I hope I helped) does not single out the Honors College and might seem to contradict its basis. Emphasis, as noted, is on expanding access, creating diverse pathways, doing everything possible to assure the success of various kinds of students. The University does not want to brag about becoming more and more exclusive, yet exclusivity, superficially at least, provides the context in which an Honors College most typically thrives, crème de la crème.

I am not fighting the Plan. At the same time I think there is every reason to preserve and expand on what Honors College success has done for us.

So, how to reconcile? First, we can admit a bit of tension but with no need to exaggerate it. Our new delight in inclusiveness was never predicated on lowering standards. As we’ve expanded numbers over the past decade, student quality has gone up, and while we’re not trumpeting this trend for the future it may well continue; and the Honors College plays an active role in this process, and will continue to do so.

Then: as with most contemporary Honors operations, our College actively, and increasingly successfully, strives for diversity while maintaining appropriate standards. This improves the “fit” with accessibility, without real contradiction. The College now has a higher percentage of African American students, for example, at 9.6%, than does the University as a whole.

Then: by attracting talented students to Mason the Honors College directly implements other features of the Strategic plan, such as service to the region. Honors College students embellish the region while they’re at Mason, and many of them stay here after graduation, adding real quality to the labor force and the creative atmosphere.

Then: our Honors College is already engaged in some distinctive outreach. The students work actively and successfully with international students, for example. We are working to expand an Honors relationship with appropriate transfer students, and this is paying off in transfer acceptances and retention. And we want to build relationships with other students who were not identified initially but end up clearly meriting some special academic recognition. In other words, we are working toward new compatibilities between Honors and access.

But some tensions remain, and I write this blog to highlight the dilemma, to welcome other suggestions, but above all to insist that we need to continue to recognize and highlight our Honors College even as we work on other aspects of our new Plan. There’s no conflict of commitment.