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Public Schools Turn to Honors Colleges

Associated Press Writer

Bronwyn Stippa had all but made up her mind to attend New York University, a top-notch private college. A visit to the University of Vermont, where she’d been accepted to a new honors college, was just a favor to her parents.

“I came up and it was just mind-blowing,” she said. “I totally did a 180.”

Vermont promised her access to top professors and special courses, and a financial aid package that dwarfed NYU’s. After school started, Vermont has also shown that it can push her as hard as any private college.

“Coming here, I figured I would have to challenge myself more, that it would be maybe easier than going to NYU,” said the freshman from Coxsackie, N.Y. “I’m realizing that’s not the case at all.”

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Trying to lure students like Stippa, public universities nationwide are developing honors colleges that promise the cozy qualities of a liberal arts college within the walls of a university.

Some have been around for decades. But the majority have cropped up since the mid-1990s, when competition for students sharpened and ambitious presidents embraced them as a way to raise their profiles. Vermont’s opened this fall; City University of New York and Miami Dade College, until recently a 2-year school, are among others that added honors colleges in recent years.

Yet the rapid expansion has raised some concerns about how they fit into the mission of state universities, and about whether some schools are rushing to open them in response to competitive pressure.

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. Not infrequently, it’s a personal call from the university president that persuades them to attend.

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Honors colleges also are popular with donors. In 2000, Intel Chief Executive Craig R. Barrett and his wife, Barbara, donated $10 million to Arizona State’s; today, the university has 482 National Merit Scholars on campus, compared to four when the honors college opened in 1988. At the University of Arkansas, two-thirds of a $300-million gift from the Walton family (owners of Wal-Mart) was used to support an honors college there.

But although they are generally welcomed, the spread of such programs has led to questions about the expense showered on a few students. On the other end, some worry that universities aren’t spending enough, rolling out honors colleges that fail to supply the resources for a truly distinct experience.

Another worry is simply how to define “honors college.”

Generally, they are more comprehensive and separate from the rest of the university than an “honors program,” but they vary in scope. The National Collegiate Honors Council plans next month to discuss several possible steps, including accreditation, that could help narrow the definition.

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“We’re concerned with the phenomenon,” said Peter Sederberg, dean of the Honors College at the University of South Carolina. “You are presenting yourself to the public as having something more than an honors program, and no one has really articulated what that ‘more’ ought to be.”

Nobody appears quite sure how many honors colleges there are. In a recent survey, Sederberg counted about 60 universities claiming the title among the membership of the National Collegiate Honors Council. But he has heard as many as 200 colleges use the title.

Sederberg believes a true honors college should have certain characteristics, such as a separate application, an administrator who carries the title “dean” and a residential component. But his survey results revealed even some of the council’s honors colleges don’t meet all of those proposed definitions.

“It’s a matter of truth in advertising,” he said. “It ought to mean something substantively and not just a flashy new brochure.”

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But Sederberg also acknowledges that even a true honors college is not necessarily superior to the honors programs that exist at many schools; it’s just different. Ohio State’s honors program offers 5,500 students special classes, access to $500,000 in research grants, housing and priority scheduling (which prompted protests from non-honors students two years ago). The average OSU honors student scores 29.9 on the ACT admissions test, more than four points higher than the school average.

Not all honors colleges are trying to poach students from top private schools; many are just trying to improve the intellectual atmosphere on campus and help retain faculty. Cleveland State, a commuter school, welcomed its first group of 40 to a new honors program this fall. Currently, it has few of the characteristics of a separate college, but it has plans to add some, such as housing.

For universities, such programs aren’t cheap, although their costs aren’t always apparent. At the University of South Carolina, for instance, regular Psychology 101 sections have 300 students, but an honors section is capped at 40. The university doesn’t have to hire more teachers, but regular students are stuck with bigger classes.

Those effects trouble some experts.

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“I find it interesting that institutions that are founded for the public good are trying to get more and more selective,” said George Dehne, marketing consultant to a number of private colleges, which he acknowledged face increased competition from many such programs. “Are they supposed to educate the best and the brightest or are they supposed to educate the populace?”

But supporters say educating the best and the brightest helps educate everyone else.

“You want to use the most committed students to help set the tone for the university,” said Bob Taylor, dean of the new honors college at Vermont, who pointed out that honors students there still take classes with other students.

And, Sederberg said, state universities have a duty to educate high-achieving students who can’t afford private schools. “We were set up to serve first and foremost the interests of citizens of the state, and those are not one-size fits all,” he said.

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Still, extra financial aid and resources can’t persuade every student that a state school can replicate the coziness of a liberal arts college.

Courtney Rogers turned down a scholarship to the University of Arkansas Honors College -- not even a personal meeting with the chancellor could sway her -- to attend the more expensive Hendrix College in Conway, Ark.

“I wanted to experience people who were as serious about what I was doing as I am,” said Rogers, now a junior. Her choice really paid off last year when a Hendrix alum called her chemistry professor looking for a summer intern to work at Merck, the pharmaceutical company. The professor recommended Rogers, and she worked there last summer, with plans to return next year.

“They don’t come to Arkansas to recruit interns,” she said. “I just don’t think I would have gotten that sort of recognition if I’d been in a much bigger class. My professor knew me, he knew my goals, he knew I was right for the job.”

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