Friday, August 12, 2005


This is a cry for help.

My college is taking a fresh look at its Honors program. This is trickier than you might think.

Community colleges are, by definition, open admissions. We take all comers (or pretty close – there’s a very, very basic level of English proficiency we require, and you need a high school diploma or G.E.D., but that’s it). Our mission involves serving the entire community. Selectivity is not what we’re about.

This means that even selling the concept of ‘Honors’ as a program or course of study (rather than simply as a recognition of a high GPA) can take some doing.

Happily for me, that battle was fought some time ago. We have an Honors program, but it’s neither fish nor fowl and it isn’t thriving, so we’re trying to revamp it.

It definitely has its virtues. The class sizes are capped much lower (they average around 12), all courses are taught by full-time faculty (to allow for sustained mentoring), and the academic content of the courses is richer. But enrollments are lagging, and the Chinese-menu course list isn’t terribly coherent.

I’ve looked at the Honors programs in the nearby four-year schools to which our students most frequently transfer. Each one is wildly different from the others: some have a mandatory residential component, some require service learning, some are almost entirely interdisciplinary, and some don’t even take hold until the junior year.

This means that looking at the nearby four-year schools doesn’t help much. It’s hard to build a transfer program when the various points of transfer are so idiosyncratic. (The default method of building a transfer program is to look at the four-year programs and copy their first half. That doesn’t work when each one is different.)

I like the concept of Honors at the community college level. Although it sometimes gets attacked as elitist, I think the attack is misplaced – to me, elitism would be to confine Honors courses to kids whose parents can afford four-year schools. Nothing is too good for the proletariat, as an old professor of mine used to say. So I don’t want to just junk the concept. But it’s devilishly hard to implement.

Is calculus an honors class? Calculus II?

Should an Honors program allow concentration of Honors courses in a given major or cluster of majors, or should an Honors student have to do the heavy lifting across the entire curriculum? (In other words, should an Honors history major have to take Honors chemistry?)

What to do in a major like Nursing or Engineering, where almost every available credit hour is spoken for?

What to do when a given major already has low enrollments, and slicing the sections even thinner would doom them to oblivion? (Political read: what to do when some departments will, by necessity, be frozen out of the program?)

And, worst of all...(drum roll, please)...

How to convince the type-A personality student to risk a lower GPA by taking Honors courses? As a college, we’ve taken the position that weighting the grades is out of the question (a position with which I agree).

Any help would be appreciated. This is a tough nut.