Thursday, March 29, 2018

An Accidental Argument for Honors Programs

Going from an academically challenging high school to an academically unchallenging college correlates with increased rates of depression, according to a new study.

For the sake of argument, I’ll leave aside how they could designate the level of academic challenge at a given college.  I’ll also leave aside any methodological quibbles with the study, and take its headline finding at face value. I’ll assume it’s at least broadly correct.

What should those of us who work at community colleges take from the finding?

Based on observing my 16-year-old son, a high-achieving student in an IB program, I’d suggest that location may have something to do with it.  We live in New Jersey; he sees getting out of New Jersey as part of the point of going to college. Many of his friends are the same way. When I was his age, I ruled out Cornell on the grounds that it was too close to Rochester.  I wanted to get out of Western New York, Ivy or no Ivy. Thirty-plus years later, that’s not true anymore, but it was abundantly true at 17.

Colleges that attract a lot of high achievers tend to draw nationally or internationally.  Colleges that don’t, tend to draw locally. A high-achieving student whose life circumstances ruled out moving away may be responding as much to staying local as to any academic frustration.

There’s also an objectionable but persistent correlation between the resources available to a college and the economic and educational standing of the students it attracts.  Simply put, as a country, we send the most resources to those who already have the most, and the fewest to those who already have the fewest. Princeton’s tax exemption is worth orders of magnitude more per student than Mercer County College’s direct subsidy, but we force austerity on the latter while admiring the former.  

Still, it can be frustrating to be in classes pitched to a median that’s too low.  That’s why I’ve long been a strong supporter of Honors and similar programs at community colleges.  Community colleges are meant to serve the entire community. That includes high achievers.

You’d think that would be an obvious position to take, but it isn’t.  At a previous college at which I worked, I butted heads with the president over the Honors program.  When I suggested that a minor infusion of resources would take it to the next level, he responded, and I am not making this up, “who cares?”  He saw an Honors program as counter to the mission of the place, as a sort of creeping elitism. I argued that academically strong students are just as much a part of the community as everybody else, and their needs were just as valid.  

I was outranked, but I wasn’t convinced.  

Now there’s another argument for my long-held position.  Not only do community college Honors programs present opportunity, they may actually be good for some students’ mental health.  

“But wait!” I hear an imaginary reader object.  “An honors program isn’t an entire college! The study refers to entire colleges!”

Which is true, but probably irrelevant.  Michael Moffatt’s classic Coming of Age in New Jersey has a nearly-forgotten section in which he asks students to draw maps of “their Rutgers,” by which he meant the layout of the university as they actually lived it.  The maps were both small and sparse; most students’ experience of a college is markedly partial. A strong Honors program with a defined cohort can become the dominant fact of a student’s experience, even if it exists only on the periphery for other students.  (The same could be said of the basketball team or the nursing program, for that matter.) That would allow the student of talent who couldn’t (or didn’t want to) move away a chance to have an academically similar experience to her erstwhile peers.

I won’t push The Boy to go to Brookdale, even though it would make my financial life easier.  Part of that is because I don’t believe in parents pushing life choices on their kids; TB is the one who will have the experience, so it should be more his choice than mine.  And part of it is that he wants some distance from Mom and Dad, which I consider healthy, if a little bittersweet. I recognize the impulse, and feel a moral obligation to pay forward the freedom I had.  He is his own person, who shouldn’t have to live his life around proving my points.

But if he did want to go to Brookdale, I’d absolutely steer him to the Honors program, where he would find the academic challenge he deserves.  And I want his counterparts who don’t have the option of moving, whether for financial or familial reasons, to have as good an academic experience as he will.  The study just adds one more argument in favor.