Choosing a College – Consider State University Value-Added Honors College

Sunday, Jan. 11th 2009 6:47 PM

In today’s tough economic times, state universities are receiving a more thorough look from students who are searching for a quality program at an affordable price.

If you are one of the individuals looking at this option, one concern could be the sheer physical size of the school and the equally large numbers of students on state campuses. However, even if you are thinking of a small liberal arts college option, you might be surprised to learn that such focused study is likely available at your state university in the form of an Honors College.

James Madison Honors College

Featuring numerous study abroad programs and dual major options, James Madison Honors College first year students follow a common curriculum including two Madison courses: a year-long Writing course and a yearlong introductory course on Public Affairs. Under the auspices of Michigan State University, Madison offers students courses with as few as eight students and major options such as International Relations, Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy, Social Relations, and Comparative Cultures and Politics.

Michigan StateHowever, students attending James Madison utilize the same admissions procedures and pay the same costs as students attending Michigan State University. Still the school has featured a number of Rhodes, Marshall, Truman and Fulbright Scholars and graduates seeking a higher degree at such prestigious institutions as Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago, Stanford, Georgetown, Cornell, Columbia, Duke, and the London School of Economics.

Lauren E. Youngdahl, a 2004 graduate of the James Madison Honors College, indicates that the choice of JM represented a chance to experience the best college atmosphere possible.

“The appeal of James Madison was it was a ‘small’ college within a ‘big’ university,” explains Youngdahl. “So I could have, in my opinion, the best of both worlds.”

Her desire for a strong liberal arts background, one that focused on analytical thinking and writing was a key factor in her selection of James Madison.

From the small class sizes to the highly esteemed faculty members who are experts in their fields (no TA’s), the program delivered. She also noted the impact of high expectations of the professors regarding student work. Adding to the challenges were highly-motivated classmates, individuals who also pushed the work standards.

“I quickly learned there was no ‘skating’ by,” states Youngdahl. “And hard work was given a new definition.”

For her studies, Youngdahl was able to pursue several interests.

“I had interest in the International Relations major,” she explains. “I paired that with a Marketing degree from the Eli Broad Business School, something that was not available in any other program at MSU.”

Two other critical components of the program, the field experience and senior thesis also were key for the graduate.

“I played golf at MSU, so the best way to accommodate both my academics and athletics was to work as the Assistant Tournament Director for the Golf Association of Michigan,” states Youngdahl of her field experience. “I would say a majority of my classmates did internships with legislators, attorneys, etc. – which many of them then became.”

James Madison“And, my senior year I had a class that was dedicated solely to writing a thesis. The subject was on the evolution of Asia as a world leader; and I did my paper on the Japanese automakers and their rise to success in the United States.”

The Honors College at the University of Maine

The Honors Program at the University of Maine is one of the oldest in the United States, having begun in the early 1930s within the College of Arts and Sciences. At that time, there were believed to be no more than a half a dozen such programs for undergraduates in the country.

Becoming a full-fledged college in 2002, The Honors College at the University of Maine is home to approximately 650 students. As with James Madison, its smallness is demonstrated by a fundamental commitment to investigate diverse academic areas and challenge students in a supportive intellectual environment, using a process that seeks always to engage fellow students and enthusiastic, distinguished faculty in thoughtful, provocative discussions.

The program features first- and second-year preceptorials, third-year tutorials, and like Madison culminates with a thesis. Its students also demonstrate a lengthy track record of success, being named Cooke Fellows along with Goldwater, Udall, and Smith Scholars.

Rachel Groenhout, now a graduate student in the Netherlands offers similar thoughts regarding her Honors College experience at the University of Maine in Orono right down to the reading and writing focus.

“I was invited to the Honors College at my University in the summer before freshman year,” explains the 2004 graduate. “I decided to give it a try because I would be able to take Honors Courses that would satisfy general education requirements that might otherwise be done through College English, Psychology, etc.

“The special Honors Sections featured a small class size (about 15 students) and a more active student experience: reading, discussing in class and weekly or monthly papers,” she adds. “This appealed to me far more than attending class in a lecture hall and only studying for a midterm and a final exam without doing anything in between.”

Similar expectations at Maine also had students completing some type of thesis senior year to earn their honors degree. The French major presented her research by authoring the work in that language.

“This was unquestionably the formative experience of my undergraduate career. For students going on to grad school, completing a first thesis with the supervision and the support of the Honors College staff is the ultimate preparation for more autonomous research work in graduate school.”

However, Groenhout insists those students with no initial interest in graduate study will also receive enormous benefit from the experiences.

“For those who don’t go on to graduate school, you’ll still have the satisfaction of having once written an academic publication. My master thesis is underway at the moment…and will probably be better than my Honors thesis…but I think no other thesis or dissertation will ever capture my heart and soul the way that the first one did.”

Groenhout offers one other caveat that students may well want to consider.

“In a time when more and more people are graduating from college, and grades are notoriously inflated, having completed an Honors degree gives your transcript and resume a little something extra,” she notes. “Whether you do it for personal satisfaction or to remain competitive on the job market, Honors is a win-win opportunity.”

The Economic Factor
Colvin-Thomson HallProfessor Charlie Slavin, the Dean of the Maine Honors College, indicates that interest is up in the college. However, he is not certain that all of the increase comes because of the fiscal issues facing students currently.

“As for now, it’s hard to say,” states Slavin. “We seem to have had a great deal of interest over the past year in the Honors College, but, again, there might be many reasons. We’ll probably know soon whether the current financial crisis causes precipitous changes in demand for or interest in the College.”

Still, there is little doubt that the Honors option is seen as a quality program that also carries with it great affordability. That concept is especially important to students who desire to continue on to graduate school.

“We always have anecdotal stories of students,” continues Slavin, “of those who enter with an eye already on professional schools (law, medicine). They want to be able to finish their undergraduate experience (more or less) debt-free while still having the credentials to compete well for graduate school acceptances. They know they will incur debt during that training.”

And as for why the experience of Honors College is so meaningful to so many students, Slavin offers his assessment.

“Our Honors Curriculum includes a major interdisciplinary core component that requires all of our students, regardless of their majors, to take intellectual risks,” states Slavin. “They are engaged in challenging academic inquiry outside their disciplines. I often refer to our engineers reading Plato and our artists studying the philosophy of quantum mechanics. This is the key to the honors concept.”

Honors Worthy of Consideration

In a Time magazine article from 2006, writer Nathan Thornburgh offered an assessment and rationale for considering state university honors colleges.

First, it may well be harder than ever to get into an Ivy League, but in presenting his eight strategies for kids and parents to use to find happiness beyond the ranks of the traditional elite schools, Thornburgh offers:

“Take the Honors Route – Big state schools trying to attract top students are increasingly establishing honors colleges. These schools within schools often feel like cloistered liberal-arts colleges but still have access to the superior resources of a large research university.”

For those who also love the athletic environment that a school can provide, Thornburgh adds:

“Another upside is that while you’re getting a more personalized education, you still have the chance to watch your school win a football game every once in a while.”

Slavin offers a similar assessment.

“It’s common in honors education to talk about ‘liberal arts college experience at a large university.’ I’m always a bit hesitant.

“It’s not the same, nor should it be,” insists Slavin. “Yes, there are some similarities: small classes, integrated curricula, closer personal attention. However, the real strength of our Honors College is the integration of those things with the cutting-edge research, and opportunities for students to be involved in this research, which takes place all across a major research University.”

Setting a New Trend

Cost-conscious students may want to think about bucking the elite trend, perhaps beginning a new pathway that represents a discerning consumer with a bent for both quality and value.

However, those who do so will definitely be in the minority at least for now.

“Our society still values name,” notes Slavin, a Princeton grad. “Regardless of education or credentials, there is an advantage to having a diploma with a certain name.”

Slavin notes the slow process of change.

“This is changing, more and more students from public institutions are winning major national fellowships (Rhodes, Truman, Goldwater, etc.) and getting acceptances to the most elite professional and graduate schools. But it’s hard to change people’s biases.”

Hard maybe, until you talk to students like Youngdahl and Groenhout. Listening to them, state university Honors Colleges appear to offer everything a student could want.

And most important for the cost-conscious student, they do so at a more affordable price.


One Comment on “Choosing a College – Consider State University Value-Added Honors College”

  1. Teresa Says:

    I’m wondering if you could tell me what the midterm elections might mean regarding free college awards. It appears the Republicans are going to look to cut anything they could cut knowning that probably means awards for education. Simply put i don’t understand how they feel this country is ever going to remain competitive, if the price of higher education continues to rise, but grants get more difficult to obtain. It’s scary to imagine I’ll be in debt $40,000 or maybe more and not knowing when I might actually get a job after I graduate in this tight economy.

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