An Honors Program Turns 25

This weekend, I attended the 25th Anniversary celebration for the Campus Honors Program (CHP) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It led me to think about something I’ve contemplated ever since I entered the Campus Honors Program in 1987: what is the justification for an honors program? In an era of budget cuts, why should honors programs even exist to spend precious resources on a small group of elite students?

Of course, the same question should be asked about entire system of higher education in America, which is a vast tracking operation. The students with the best grades and the best SAT scores (and the most wealth) are admitted to the top private colleges which spend the most money on their education. The least prepared students, and those who are poor, get shuffled into community colleges which spend very little money educating their students.

Certainly, the CHP is good for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which recruits some top students who might otherwise go to the Ivy Leagues. And that helps build an intellectual culture on a campus where Greeks outnumber geeks.

During the anniversary celebration in Urbana, a lunch session with current students and alums revealed students past and present who spoke with passion about their professors, a passion for learning too often lacking in higher education.

An Honors Program can also help excite faculty, who get an opportunity to teach small classes and try out new approaches to teaching. What made Honors classes different from the other classes on campus was the experimental nature of many classes, which often covered unusual topics. Some of the classes offered by the CHP this semester include Natural Disasters, Scientific Creativity & Invention in Historical Perspective, The American Health Care System, Language in Human History, Hypergraphics, Mathematics in Music and Art, Biocomplexity, Spaceflight, and Sexual Animal Reproduction.

These honors classes are also notable for their interdisciplinary nature, in part because students from a wide range of schools on campus took them. The rare place at large universities where people of different majors interact, general education requirements, are generally the worst atmosphere for it: large lecture courses full of uninterested students. By the time most students encounter a small seminar, they’re taking advanced courses in their major, or in graduate school, with peers from the same major. Bruce Michelson, director of the Campus Honors Program since 1996, praised the program for “so many high-quality interactions across a broad range of disciplines.”

Whenever I took a large lecture class with yawning students in the half-empty seats, I felt a twinge of guilt at the superior education I was privileged to receive in my Honors classes. But I believe that excellent Honors Programs provide a model for what all students deserve, and help campuses to do that.

I’m skeptical of some honors programs. Arizona State University has a $130 million honors program called Barrett College, featuring exclusive honors housing, its own student center and dining facility, and even separate faculty. This is the real danger of elitism, where a public university tries to increase its prestige and rankings by creating an expensive, exclusive honors college that’s only missing a moat to establish how separate and superior it is to the peasants in the rest of the institution.

Illinois’ Honors Program strikes a much better balance. There’s an Honors House, but it’s a rickety house with one classroom, a tiny library with some ancient textbooks I recall from a quarter-century ago, a small computer lab, and a prairie garden out front planted by students. As Michelson says, “I really like that old house.” It has a lot of character, and builds a sense of community, but without isolating students from the rest of campus.

One of the CHP’s most famous alums, Eboo Patel, a Rhodes scholar and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, has credited the Honors Program for playing a key role in his education. But Patel has also praised another Illinois program, Unit One at the dorm Allen Hall, for expanding his understanding of the world. I also took classes at Unit One and attended programs while I lived there. Unit One’s classes were open to everyone, proving that innovative programs don’t need to be limited to honors students.

Honors programs are a valuable way to promote high-quality education on campus. But they are at their best when they don’t stand apart nor seek to be the tallest and whitest ivory tower on campus. Instead, honors programs should provide a model for how campuses can expand excellent classes, increase interdisciplinary work, and enhance interactions between faculty and students. The goal should be to take the successes of honors programs and help bring those elements of improving higher education to everyone on campus.

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