Last week I paid a visit to the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), our state’s research and technological university and got a preview of one of the better public college honors programs in the country. NJIT’s public college honors program is special because it offers academic tracks for students who are motivated towards academic research-oriented careers as well as those who are interested in employment immediately after graduation.

NJIT takes some unique approaches to an honors-level education which will be reported shortly. In the meantime, it is fair for prospective students and their parents to ask: what are the upsides to a public college honors program?

+ Students get a chance to attend smaller classes taught by full-time faculty from their freshman year onward.

+ This means that they may get the equivalent of an education at a smaller private school for much less money.

+ Honors students in some programs, such as Penn State’s, receive priority registration for classes.

+ Honors programs that include honors housing put highly motivated students together. It might be simple, such as a renovated residence hall at Indiana University of Pennsylvania that has several “personal” and “academic” touches. Or it might be a recently opened building such as the honors college at Rutgers-New Brunswick.

+ Honors credentials, including excellent grades and a promising thesis, can be an excellent springboard into graduate work or law school or medical school. Admissions committees look most favorably upon the applicants with the strongest academic credentials. Honors colleges offer their own advisors who aid in these processes.

+ Honors students may receive more favorable attention from faculty, even those who do not teach honors-level courses.

+An honors program of respectable size, up to 10 percent of the student body, paints a positive picture on the academic reputation of the greater university community.

+ The better programs allow students to apply for admission during or after the freshman year. They offer a second chance to people who were not offered admission the first time.

+ A public honors college, such as St. Mary’s College of Maryland or New College of Florida, offers a quality liberal arts education much like prestigious private schools, starting at a considerable discount. St. Mary’s out-of-state tuition and fees, for example, are less than two-thirds of those of leading private colleges in the Mid-Atlantic states such as Bucknell, Dickinson, Franklin and Marshall and Gettysburg.

+ A public honors college is also an attractive alternative to a large state university for students who are sure that they want a liberal arts education, but want to take advantage of the other resources offered at a larger school.

What are some of the downsides?

+ Not all courses at a larger school will be honors courses. Honors work would be combined with traditional large lecture courses in the first two years. If a student’s preference is to have no lecture courses, they would be better off at a smaller school.

+ Honors students represent a small segment of the student body. Whenever a college or university is under pressure to make budget cuts they will start with programs that benefit few students. This does not mean that the school would terminate an honors program. But some benefits, such as scholarship dollars, could be reduced.

+ Honors students at a larger school are still part of a greater university community. While they have access to more resources, such as larger libraries, than they would find at a smaller school, they must share them with the rest of the student body. They have to deal with crowds and bureaucracy, just like everyone else.

+ If a school does not manage the program right, honors students will be considered special in a bad way. A large university wants to overcome a perception of creating a “privileged class” within its freshman class, whether it be scholarship athletes or supposedly brilliant scholars. If the university administration fails, they will have created a program that harbors resentment within the larger student body. Students have no problem with classmates receiving full scholarships, per se, but they expect those people to be thankful and to earn them every day they are on campus. Those who work hard and get along with people attract respect. Those who are lazy and arrogant breed resentment.

+ Academics are held in a different perspective for every student. They are not 100 percent of the college experience. While a student who plans to continue their education after college will benefit from excellent grades and academic credentials, other students benefit more from an extracurricular activity, such as music or a sport, that is a very important part of their life, and possibly their future career. Other students believe that they might be better off gaining work experience through internships or co-op programs; these take time away from traditional college courses.

 

Carefully evaluate the opportunities that come with entering a public college as an honors student. Be sure that they are compatible with your student’s interests and objectives. And feel confident that the honors faculty and staff can do all that they promise they will do.

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