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


We're here today with Dr. P.J. Hendriks, noted authority on American higher education. In light of President Barchi's recent report to the Rutgers Faculty Senate, we wanted to take the occasion to ask Dr. Hendriks if he could shed any light on the "honors college" proposal Mr. Barchi so enthusiastically described in his senate address.


Q: Mr. Hendriks, welcome to our forum.

A: Glad to be here, George.

Q: Mr. Hendriks, you're probably aware that we've previously focused on the way the prostitution of Rutgers to commercialized Div IA athletics has led to a huge drop in admissions standards, the flight of top New Jersey students to out-of-state institutions, and widespread faculty demoralization. Now we're being told that something called an "honors college" might ameliorate these trends. What, exactly, is an "honors college"?

A: Well, George, there are two sides to that question. Many experts, for instance, maintain that "honors colleges" are simply a public relations gimmick to let third- and fourth-rate institutions try to hide the quality of the education they provide. They say that no really good university would consider creating an "honors college."

They argue that the only real purpose is to put out a flood of material about how the University of Northwest Dakota at Elephant Butte serves the 'best and brightest' students in the state with a program featuring locally renowned 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: Well, supporters of the idea also emphasize the point that a university with an honors college gets to put out a flood of material about how the institution serves the 'best and brightest' students by giving them a program with locally-renowned faculty and separate residential accomodations, plus courses with actual reading assignments. But they point to other advantages as well. For instance, the president of the university gets to talk about how "prestigious" the honors college is. The hypothesis is that prestige is basically something you earn by repeating the word a lot.

Q: We see. Well, let's go back to the experts you cite at the beginning. What's the basis of the 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 Univ. in 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."

One well-known commentator on higher education has argued 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, like MOOCs and other innovations, is being taken seriously in American higher education. At Rutgers, for instance, President Barchi seems to be promoting the idea. Can you give us a sample list of universities where the honors college idea has taken hold?

A: I can give you list of a few I examined 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" would instantly become a member this group. Well, suppose that a public university had already committed to the project. Do you have any advice for them?

A: Yes. One point is especially important. If you're the University of Northwest Dakota at Elephant Butte you should not call your operation the University of Northwest Dakota at Elephant Butte Honors College.

Q: Because?

A: Because that defeats the whole purpose of using the "honors college" to distract attention from the remedial-level education being given to the other 99% of the students.

Q: So what should you do?

A: Name the honors college after a third party. If you can get a major donor, great. Name it after the donor, something like the "Joe and Esther Peebles and Their Beloved Poodle Fifi Honors College." If you can't get a major donor, you can get the same trustees who select candidates for honorary degrees suggest one of their local luminaries. At Rutgers, for instance, The "Albert R. Gamper Honors College" would be a logical choice. Or they might want to double the impact and call it the "Greg Brown Honors College and Recruiting Lounge."

On the other hand, you can look for a corporate sponsor. Corporations love to use universities to peddle their brands. Remember that your own current president Barchi has repeatedly talked about Rutgers itself as a "brand." So the opportunity is there. You might name your operation the "Tostitos Corn Chips Honors College," for instance, or the "High Point Solutions Honors College." In a culture inundated with nonstop advertising, universities have 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 in decline is drastically to raise admissions standards. It takes longer, and it means you can't put out a PR blitz about "the best and the brightest" and "intensive learning" and "prestigious," but over time you wind up with a real university and not just a tiny pathetic facade trying to hide a huge third- or fourth-rate institution from public view.

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