Q & A: What is an "Honors College"?

We feature a recent interview with P.J. Hendriks, noted authority on American higher education. Our subject was the honors college concept that over the past few decades has gotten much attention at public institutions.

Q: Mr. Hendriks, along with "MOOCs" and similiar topics, the honors college trend is causing a lot of talk in "strategic planning" circles. Can you tell us just what an honors college is supposed to be?

A: Well, George, there are two sides the question. Critics say that "honors colleges" are an empty public relations gimmick to let third- and fourth-rate institutions put up a false front to distract people from the dismal quality of the education they provide.

The same critics argue that the point of the PR facade is to let such institutions put out material about how the University of East Dakota at Elephant Flap Butte serves the interests of the 'best and brightest' students in the state through a program featuring world-famous faculty and separate residential accomodations, plus courses with actual reading assignments.

Q: That's one side of the question. What do the people who promote honors colleges say?

A: Their argument is that a university that has an honors college gets to issue enthusiastic material about how the institution serves the interests of the 'best and brightest' students in the state by giving them a program with world-famous faculty and separate residential accomodations, plus courses with actual reading assignments.

They point out that the university can then mount a huge public relations blitz with videos and Facebook pages and printed material and articles in the alumni magazine. They maintain that the videos and the press releases will hide from public view the level of education given to the other 99% of the students.

Q: We see. Well, let's go back to the critics for a second. What's the basis of their claim that no really good university would have an "honors college"?

A: It's essentially that good universities don't have them.

Q: That's pretty sweeping. We're no fan of the U.S. News college rankings, but you surely can't tell us that, say, the top 20 institutions on their list don't have honors colleges.

University of Chicago
Johns Hopkins
Washington University (St. Louis)
Notre Dame

A: Actually, I've never checked, but I'd be very surprised to find that any of them had anything called an "honors college." It's true that most universities have honors programs, but an honors program is not an honors college. They're entirely different concepts.

One commentator on higher education makes the point that at a good university the school itself is the honors college. That's why it has no need to create a separate enterprise for "real" students.

Q: Well, but you've admitted yourself that the "honors college" trend is having a huge impact in American higher education. Can you give us a sample list of universities where the honors college movement has taken hold?

A: I can give you list of a few I looked at a while back.

East Tennessee State
Middle Tennessee State
University of Texas at Arlington
University of Texas at San Antonio
Texas State University at San Marcos
University of North Texas
University of Alabama at Huntsville
University of Central Arkansas
Mississippi State University
University of Southern Mississippi
University of Missouri at St.Louis
Azuza Pacific University
Colorado State at Fort Collins
University of Central Florida
Florida Atlantic University
University of South Florida
Western Illinois University
University of Massachusetts at Lowell
Western Michigan University
North Carolina State University at Raleigh

Q: We see. So any university now planning an "honors college" whould join this group. Well, suppose that some public university was determined to go ahead with the project. What advice would you give them?

A: The major point is simple enough. If you're University of West Dakota at Elephant Flap Butte you should not call your operation the University of West Dakota at Elephant Flap Butte Honors College. That defeats the entire purpose of using the "honors college" to distract attention from the real university.

Q: So what should you do?

A: You should name the honors college after a third party. If you can get a major donor, great. Name it after the donor: the "Richard and Eleanor V. Peebles Honors College," for instance. If you can't get a major donor, name it after someone the trustees take to represent the current university and its values. The "Karl Krishner Honors College," for instance.

Another option is to get a corporate sponsor. Corporations love to use universities to advertise their brands. In fact, there are some administrators these days who talk about the university itself as a "brand." So, for instance, when the building is completed you might arrange to name your new operation the "Tostitos Corn Chips Honors College" or the "High Point Solutions Honors College." In a culture overwhelmed with predatory advertising, universities have considerable leverage.

Q: Good point. Let us close with a final question: has an "honors college" ever changed anything at a university that's going precipitously downhill?

A: Not really. The evidence shows that the only way to improve a university that's in decline is to drastically raise admissions standards for all applicants. It takes longer, and it means you can't put out a PR blitz about "the best and the brightest" and "intensive learning" and the rest of it, but over time you wind up with a real university and not just a tiny pathetic facade meant to hide the rest from sight.

Q: We see. Mr. Hendricks, thanks for joining us today.