Sunday, August 09, 2015

What of students who aren't in an Honors Program?

Frank Bruni's column today features advice to the families with a gifted kid who is on track to attend college starting in fall 2016.  The suggestion is to look at the Honors College at the flagship university in your state, rather than focus exclusively on ritzy private colleges.  It will be a lot cheaper tuition-wise and it will expose the student to more diversity among the rest of the student population than would be found at the private schools.

I want to look at this from a different vantage, the implicit message to the students who get admitted to those flagship public universities but don't get into these Honors Programs.  What about them?

In the previous decade while I was still working full time as an administrator I taught CHP classes on occasion. I have not done so since I've retired, in part because I have some ethical issues with how this program works.  I want to discuss those and related matters in what follows.

The last time I taught a CHP course, fall 2009, I queried the class about whether there were students who were just as talented as they were in their other classes but who weren't in CHP.  The answer is that there were these other students.

To be fair, there are a variety of honors programs on Campus.  Most are at the College level rather than at the Campus level.  The larger colleges will have an Honors Dean whose responsibility is to look after these students and make sure they have a rich set of experiences.  There is a program called James Scholars for such students.  There may be other programs as well.  When I was in the College of Business, it has both James Scholars and a College Honors program. I believe some students could be both and, indeed, they could be in CHP as well.

Even with this expanded set of honors offerings there is the question of where to to draw the line as to who gets in and whether you end up not being inclusive enough or too inclusive.  Having raised that issues let me leave it and move on.

Next I want to get at what it means to be gifted.  We have a notion of the late bloomer, someone who is quite talented but whose talents remain dormant for an extended period of time.  We also have a notion of school as competition and that some students burn out because they find the environment insufficiently nurturing.  Ironically, Bruni has written extensively on this issue, yet he still flaunts Honors Colleges.  It seems to me evident that they will not select late bloomers, who haven't yet consistently performed at a high level, while they may select early bloomers who have burned out by the time they enter the program.  There is a question whether such late bloomers are identifiable ahead of time to be distinguished from more typical students.  If they can be identified, there is an issue regarding the best ways to encourage them to bloom.  Are the regular programs sufficient for that or not?

One can also look at being gifted from the perspective of personality type. In the Myers-Briggs schema, those kids classified as gifted are disproportionately NT types (intuitive, thinkers).  There is an extensive discussion of this in the book Gifts Differing.   If professors are themselves mainly NTs (I'm pretty sure this is true for those on the tenure track, but not as confident in this proposition for other instructors) and if instructors teach to the conception of themselves as students (which I think a reasonably good hypothesis) then college will not be very nurturing for other types.  One might then ask whether with additional resources and some focus, if a more nurturing environment could be created for each student.  If so, does having an Honors College indirectly block a push for developing such nurturing environments?  The economist in me wants to point out that any choice comes with an opportunity cost.  In this case is the opportunity cost that for the bulk of the non-honors students the hypothesis put forth in Academically Adrift holds true?

The last thing I will ask is this.  How can the situation sustain?  This is meant to focus on the economic fundamentals - what the students pay versus the type of jobs the students will likely get.  If in the past the labor market for new grads mainly interpreted the degree from the place as the credential, but if in the future the labor market sharply differentiates whether the degree comes with honors or not, then it is conceivable that the return to college for many non-honors students might not cover the tuition, fees, and other expense they have to pay to attend.  Colleges that are far sighted have an interest in that not happening and should be asking what they need to do to prevent that outcome.

My sense of this is that the answer lies in an approach where the ordinary experience for students is a nurturing one and where they learn a lot in college, but we are not there now, not even close.  This move toward Honors Colleges and Honors Programs represents a more expeditious response, that is of course good for the students who get into these programs, but is likely pernicious for the rest of the student population.   This ignoring of the rest of the students should be a concern, especially at a place that calls itself a public university.

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