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2013 December 15

What is the point of honors programs?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:35
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In Undergraduate Honor Programs I asked

Why should we have an honors program?  What is the point of honors programs in general, and this one in particular?  What resources does an honors program need? How can the program be made a permanent institution, and not just a quick burn through startup money (which seems to have been the fate of all previous attempts to create honors programs here)?

I’ll start making a stab at those questions today, starting with “what’s the point?”

The basic assumption of any honors program is that it is worth putting some effort and resources into attracting and retaining students that are substantially better than the average students at that institution.  Highly selective colleges (like Stanford, MIT, or Harvey Mudd) do not need to have an honors college, as their average students are already at the top of the pool of available students—there aren’t “substantially better” students available for them to attract and retain.

But why don’t the top students just go to the highly selective colleges? Two reasons: there aren’t enough slots at them for all the top students, and many of the highly selective colleges are quite expensive—middle-class students often can’t afford to go even if they get in.  Thus many of the top students will end up going to public universities or other colleges that aren’t as highly selective.  How can these students best be served?  Ideally, we’d like to duplicate the experience of the highly selective colleges as closely as possible: top-quality faculty teaching small classes of students who are intellectual peers.  (Yes, this is definitely a rose-colored-glasses view of the highly selective colleges, some of which do have huge lecture halls stuffed with athletes and legacies, taught by underpaid contingent faculty—but we’re talking about the ideal here.)

From the standpoint of the honors students, an honors program at a “lesser” college should provide them a close approximation of attending a more selective college, but at a price they can afford.

There are other stakeholders in any university planning besides the students: faculty, alumni, administrators, … .

What do faculty have to gain or lose by having an honors program?  First and foremost, teaching honors students is a joy—they understand points quickly, they do the reading, they respond to guidance, they can participate fully in research, … .  Having one or two top students in a class does not help much—the material has to be presented at a pace suitable for most of the class, and  the top students quickly get bored and tune out.  Having a class full of top students can be incredibly energizing, though, and can compensate for other classes where enormous effort is needed to get marginally competent performance from the students.

So why don’t faculty whole-heartedly embrace honors programs?  Simply put, not everyone will get to teach an honors class.  If the honors students are only the top 2–5% of the students, and are concentrated in honors classes, then most faculty will never get to teach them.  Jealousy of those who do get to teach smaller classes of top students can erode faculty support for honors courses. Furthermore, teaching resources are usually allocated based on raw numbers  of students taught (the “butts-in-seats” metric that administrators and legislators use), so any small courses that are offered have to be paid for by making other courses bigger.  Those who teach the big courses understandably object to increasing their workload so that someone else gets to teach a more fun class.

Also, some public-university faculty see the point of public university as social leveling—providing a ticket to middle-class jobs and lifestyle for students from poorer families. Honors students tend to be disproportionately from middle-class and upper-middle-class families, so faculty with social-leveling as their main goal do not want to help them—it is easier to narrow achievement gaps by holding the top down than by bringing the bottom up.

What is the value of an honors program for alumni? Mainly the reputation of the college. College reputation these days is based mainly on research output (which has little to do with undergraduate education—some would even argue for a negative correlation) and on the few students who later attain celebrity status.  Having exceptional students graduate from a college increases the reputation of the college, even if the average students are decidedly not exceptional.

What is the value of an honors program for administrators?  Two-fold: improving college rankings and improving alumni loyalty.

College rankings are based mainly on numbers like the SAT scores of incoming freshmen, the retention of students into the second year, and the fraction of students that graduate within 4, 5, or 6 years.  Increasing the number of honors students improves all those numbers, though a small program (<5% of students) will not move the 25%ile and 75%ile numbers on SAT scores much by itself.  However, having an honors program can increase the number of top applicants, allowing the admissions office to be more selective and move those numbers up.

Thus honors programs are particularly attractive to colleges that  want to increase their selectivity.  For example, UCSC is currently near the bottom of the UC system (above Riverside and Merced) with 25%ile SAT scores of 470, 490, 480 and 75%ile scores of 610, 630, 620 (that’s for reading, math, writing). Only about 6–7% of UCSC freshmen scored over 700 on the SAT.  Many of the faculty would like to see something closer to the UCB numbers (25%ile: 590, 630, 620; 75%ile: 720, 770, 750, with 36–56% of students over 700).  Even a small honors program could increase the number of students scoring over 700 at UCSC substantially, since there are so few (about 250 a year) to begin with.  (Numbers from 2012–13 Common Data Sets.)

Alumni loyalty is a subtler effect.  Alumni are loyal to an institution if it gave them a strong sense of belonging while there were there.  That is part of the reason that colleges tolerate fraternities and sororities, despite the terrible press and scandals (hazing, alcohol overdoses, racism, …) that seem to accompany that decision so frequently. It is also the justification given for college sports, though the evidence now is pretty strong that college sports does not increase alumni giving by nearly as much as it costs to operate.  At UCSC, with few frats or sororities and only Division III athletics and club sports, the usual approaches for invoking alumni loyalty without actually doing anything are not available.

For a number of years the college system at UCSC evoked a lot of student loyalty (particularly at Cowell College), but the growth to about 1500 students per college, with few classes taken with one’s fellow college students and the loss of a number of traditions (like weekly College Night at Cowell Dining) has made college loyalty much less of a draw than it used to be.  An honors college, where the students really did often have classes in common after their freshman year, could restore some of that luster to the college system.  It seems to work fairly well for the Honors College at Michigan State University, for example, though they have even lower SAT scores than UCSC, except in  math (MSU 25%ile: 430,540,460; 75%ile: 590, 680,580; 4–22% over 700).

So, assuming that we want an honors program at UCSC, what are the short-term goals?

  • Recruiting top students (say students with 2 SAT scores ≥ 700, or one ≥ 740).
  • Retaining top students past the first year (we still lose a lot who transfer to schools with a higher reputation).
  • Creating a community of peers for top students—it is too easy for top students to compare themselves with the average students around them and end up not challenging themselves.  Having a peer group who are just as bright can push them to achieve far more than they would have in an environment where they are always the “best”.
  • Finding a way to fund the honors program that does not rely on start-up funds that expire nor build up jealousy from faculty not teaching honors courses.

In a subsequent post, I’ll muse about ways that we can achieve these goals.



  1. We have debated having an honors track in our CS courses, but I have been against it. The big reason is that we wouldn’t have the numbers to sustain it beyond the first few courses. And that, to me, seems to defeat the purpose. We already have the problem in our upper division courses of many very unprepared students who seemingly did not learn much in their intro to CS courses. If we had to bring together students who had done an honors version of the intro courses with students who had not, I think the problem in those upper division courses would be even worse.

    Comment by Bonnie — 2013 December 17 @ 07:14 | Reply

    • I’ve certainly heard that argument before, but there are other options for honors programs besides honors versions of freshman courses. One is waiving prereqs for students in the honors program, so that they don’t have to sit through years of slow-paced background courses that are intended just to filter the number of students down to a manageable level. Another is to provide the honors courses at higher levels, rather than lower levels, if upper-division courses are big enough to be split. When there are over 100 students in an upper division CS course, it makes sense to split off the top third into an honors course that is faster paced and goes into more depth. That doesn’t even require an honors program, as students can be pretty good about self-selecting whether they want an easier course or one with more meat.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 December 17 @ 09:23 | Reply

  2. Even our best, most talented students come to us with no programming experience, since that is not a common high school course around here. So skipping the programming prereqs would not be in their interest!! And though our program is a bit above that 100 student mark, we never can run more than one section at a time of our upper division courses. The main suggestion given is to “differentiate” within the upper division courses, but we all know how well that works in K12. Besides having informal chats with the good students on interesting CS topics, or discussing their designs on a higher level, it is really hard to differentiate. And if you try asking them to do harder assignments, even the good students will quite rightly ask “why should I do more for the same grade?”

    Comment by Bonnie — 2013 December 17 @ 11:44 | Reply

    • I agree that differentiation within a course rarely works, except in courses that are inherently differentiated (like student-selected project courses).

      I have seen CS departments add meaningless prerequisites in order to keep class sizes down (like requiring multi-variable calculus for a data structures and algorithms course, where no calculus is needed—or at most single-variable differential calculus). Creeping prerequitism is serious problem at our university, where every department tries to protect its upper division courses by adding more and more prerequisites—making interdisciplinary majors like bioengineering almost impossible for students to take.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 December 17 @ 21:10 | Reply

      • Oh no, we don’t do that. In fact our bigger problem is lack of prerequisites, so you end up with students who have had one semester of programming and no data structures in upper division courses. So then we ended up teaching the upper division courses as reading courses rather than hands on courses. We’ve been changing that, so I guess we are buying into creeping prerequitism, but nothing like requiring mutivariate calculus for data structures.

        Comment by Bonnie — 2013 December 19 @ 05:02 | Reply

        • Too few prerequisites are perhaps a worse problem than too many, as courses end up getting watered down as unprepared students take them. The ideal is to have fairly precise prerequisites, where the material needed for the course is clearly identified. Students who know the material from other routes than the standard prerequisite courses should be allowed to register. Prerequisites that are just there so that students will have “mathematical maturity” or so that “all students know the same things” or to keep down class sizes are pernicious.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 December 19 @ 10:34 | Reply

  3. […] Undergraduate Honor Programs and What is the point of honors programs? I talked about the part-time faculty administrative position opening up for building up the honors […]

    Pingback by Not applying for administrative role in honors program | Gas station without pumps — 2014 January 3 @ 17:06 | Reply

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