What follows is the 4400-word overview of the Honors Program’s current practices regarding admission, retention, recruitment, and assessment that I wrote in response to conversations in my Honors senior capstone course (once, for me, always, titled Cultivating Global Citizenship) this past Tuesday. The activities and initiatives it describes represent thousands of hours of work on my part over the past four years as I’ve striven to make the program more open, accountable, accessible, equitable, and diverse. I’ll let the original intro to the piece speak for itself. Comments, questions, critiques, etc. are all very welcome!
In light of our conversation in class this past Tuesday, I thought it best to give context for our conversation coming on Thursday by offering you an overview of the recently-past, current, and near-future Honors Program practices relating to recruitment, admission, retention, and assessment. I hope that this description will help you to generate yet other ideas for how the Honors Program may move forward in the development of a more diverse and equitable community reflecting if not simply UNC Asheville’s student population but the populations of the city, the region, and the state.
Before I begin by discussing the recent past practices in the program, I should add further context by admitting that I believe in the inherent, intrinsic value of diversity: I believe that diversity is a good thing, in and of itself. Specifically, I believe that making space for, and listening to, diverse voices not only makes for a richer and fuller understanding of our lives and others’; moreover, it makes for a fuller and more rewarding life in the first place. For these reasons, I feel that it is a laudable aim to cultivate an honors community that is open and accessible to students, faculty, and community members with diverse backgrounds in every sense of the word “diverse.”
The recent past: Programmatic practices at the start of my tenure as Director
As many of you know, I took over as director of the UNC Asheville Honors Program during the summer of 2012. Moreover, as many of you know, philosophically and practically, many of my views on honors programming and pedagogy stand in distinct opposition to those of my predecessor (who no longer teaches at our school). I feel it is important to know where one begins before one can decide where one is headed. With this thought in mind, I begin by summarizing some of the relevant practices that were in place in the Honors Program at the time I took over as director.
Admission practices. As I mentioned in class, for several years prior to my beginning as director, it was the practice of the Honors Program to automatically accept into the program all students who received a Laurels Scholarship or Laurels Fellowship. Depending on available funding, the number of such students was roughly 60-65 per year, and this group comprised the clear majority of new Honors students in a given year; a smaller number (usually on the order of 12-15 students) were admitted to the program upon successful completion of an online application. Additionally, a still smaller number of students (generally 5-6 per semester) would be admitted “midstream,” having demonstrated academic success by achieving a 3.5 GPA (or higher) after one or more semesters of study at UNC Asheville and by obtaining a recommendation letter from an instructor at UNCA.
There are several issues with these admission practices:
- Reliance on traditional measures of academic success. Leaving aside the fact that, in effect, the Admissions Office (and not the Honors Program itself) was choosing upwards of 75% of the Honors students in a given year, the coupling of the Laurels Scholars program with Honors meant that GPA and SAT/ACT scores were weighed very heavily in reckoning a student’s fitness for Honors. Combine this fact with the reality of academic tracking in K-12 institutions and the result is an especially disproportionately non-diverse (not to mention academically risk-averse) population admitted into Honors. Even those students who were admitted via the online application were inappropriately “screened,” having been recommended to complete the program application on the basis of now-obsolete program literature offering suggested benchmarks for prospective Honors students (like an unweighted A-level GPA, an ACT composite score of at least 28, or a Critical Reading/Math SAT score of 1260): students not meeting these criteria often simply didn’t apply.
- Lack of clarity of expectations. Furthermore, many of the students who were admitted to the program simply didn’t know they were admitted, as they were unaware that receipt of a Laurels Scholarship granted them membership in the program. A fair number of students reported each year that they didn’t have any idea what the Honors Program was or what was expected of them in it. Effectively, the program was an “opt-out” program and not an “opt-in” program, leading to a relatively low level of engagement from participating students; attrition in the Honors Program, though declining, was still quite high, with a substantial number of students not completing requirements for Distinction.
- Lack of awareness about the program. The number of students entering the program “midstream” has historically been very small. (This is disappointing if for no reason other than that the group of students from whom these “midstream” admittants are chosen comprises almost all of UNCA’s non-traditional-age students and transfer students, both of which groups are much more diverse racially and socioeconomically than the student body at large.) The paucity of “midstream” admittants is largely owing to faculty members’ lack of awareness of the Honors Program, which in turn trickles down to students’ lack of awareness of the program. Moreover, my predecessor in the directorship was averse to admitting many students “midstream”; he was very open about his goal to make UNCA a more traditional residential liberal arts college, a goal that flies in the faces both of the institution’s mission to further the public good and of the reality of the non-traditional population it serves. He even went so far as to lie to students about the possibility of entering the program “midstream,” informing a number of students that this simply could not be done.
There’s one more matter related to admissions about which I’ll talk a bit below, and that concerns transfer students in particular. My predecessor, as I’ve just mentioned, did his best to discourage transfer students from applying for the Honors Program, and he actively resisted both recognition of Honors credits from other schools and the signing of memoranda of understanding with community colleges. The latter are legally-binding documents according to which the signatories agree on transfer practices regarding students moving from one institution to another. Those that my predecessor resisted, specifically, were agreements under which UNCA’s Honors Program would recognize a certain number of Honors credits completed by students transferring from one of the now several honors programs at two-year colleges throughout the state. Much more on these below…
Retention practices. Once a student gains entry to the Honors Program, they must remain in good standing, meaning, at present, that they must maintain an overall GPA of at least 3.25 and an Honors GPA of at least 3.5, and that they must complete at least 6 hours of Honors coursework in their first 60 hours at UNCA. Any student failing to meet these standards in a given semester is given a “grace” semester in which to bring the appropriate GPA up before removal from the program the following semester if the standards are not met at that time.
In practice these are not terribly difficult standards to maintain: because of them, only 5-10 Honors students are removed from the program each term. However, as with the admissions procedures outlined above, they rely on very traditional measures of academic success.
I will have more to say below about my plans to change the standards given here when I discuss my future plans, and before this I will soon describe practical changes I’ve already made that are clearly having an impact.
Assessment practices. No doubt some of you are aware that every “unit” on campus (including non-academic offices, departments, programs, etc.) must perform regular assessment of their work. This can take many forms, but for academic units (like the Honors Program) this generally includes assessment of both student learning outcomes (are students demonstrating academic achievement of specific cognitive, affective, or other learning goals?) and operational effectiveness and efficiency (is the unit functioning smoothly?).
My predecessor had put in place no measures of program operations, meaning that his assessment of program functioning was nonexistent. Furthermore, his assessment of learning outcomes was based entirely on students completing HON 479 (the course that has since been replaced by Honors LA 478) in a given semester. Total reliance on this specific population made it impossible to get a longitudinal, multidimensional view of the program’s success at helping students to learn. For example, how can one tell that students have gained knowledge about community engagement through completing the program if you only ever measure their knowledge on this subject at one point in their careers?
In a little while, I will briefly discuss assessment changes that I have put in place since taking over as director.
The times, they are a-changin’: What I’ve done so far
I’ll group the practices I have put in place under the same headings that I used above.
Admission practices. One of my earliest goals, which for bureaucratic and political reasons took some time to implement, was to effect a “decoupling” of the Laurels Scholarship program from the Honors Program. After several conversations with leaders in Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and Admissions, and after several semesters of planning and politicking, I managed to perform a near-total decoupling, and in Fall 2015 only 15 students (instead of 60-65) were admitted automatically based on their receipt of a merit scholarship from the university. Namely, recipients of Laurels Scholarships were no longer automatically admitted, but recipients of the more prestigious Laurels Fellowship were. (Beginning this year the former will be renamed Pisgah Scholarships, the latter retaining their name.) This change means that a much higher percentage of Honors students are chosen not by outsiders based on traditional measures of academic fitness but by Honors Program staff and faculty.
Meanwhile, the online application itself has been redesigned each year, with less and less emphasis placed on traditional measures of academic excellence and more attention paid to students’ responses to prompts for short essay-style answers. (I should note that in the last few years, said prompts have asked applicants to reflect on community building and diversity, rather than on strictly academic activities, as was done in years prior to my directorship.) Frequently students with GPAs or standardized test scores that would previously have given them easy entrance to the program are now denied admission should the “softer” aspects of their applications, including community engagement, extracurricular activities, and other demonstrations of passion for learning, come up short. For instance, students whose writing is flat or formulaic (even after having been encouraged to write to inform and not impress, in order to let their own voices come through) may be denied admittance, regardless of their ACT scores. I’ll say a bit more about my future plans for applications below.
I would like to note that it’s not just “on paper” that these changes to admission procedures have taken place: I’m very careful in comments I make at Open Houses and on Admitted Student Days to convey my view that the Honors Program should be open to all students who demonstrate a passion for learning, in whatever way. I encourage student representatives of the Honors Program to adopt the same language, offering phrases like “excellence without elitism” and “inclusive by design” as easy means of making our mission clear.
Aggregately, these changes lead to a more inclusive “opt-in” model for Honors: for the most part, now students have to make an active choice to be in the program, but they will, in theory, represent a broader segment of their respective K-12 communities. In principle, moreover, those students who’ve been admitted should be more motivated, engaged, and self-directed.
What’s the result, in practice, so far? It’s too early to tell. This year’s incoming class of Honors students was smaller (by roughly 30 students) than those of the previous several years, but appears to be more active and involved, as measured informally by student engagement and slightly more rigorously by the quality of student responses to a new assessment instrument (I’ll say more about this in a couple of sections). Our more longitudinal assessment procedures won’t capture richer data about this year’s class for a few years yet.
What about students who enter the program after they’ve completed one or more terms at UNCA? In order to offset the smallness of this year’s incoming class, and in order to attract a more diverse group of students to the Honors Program, I made greater efforts to recruit “midstream” students this past fall. In Fall 2015, I made personal visits to meetings of all of the university’s 178 courses, letting students know about the program and about “midstream” admission to it, encouraging those students with at least a 3.5 GPA by the end of the term to apply. Furthermore, I made several efforts to increase faculty awareness of the Honors Program’s admissions procedures, encouraging faculty to send their best and brightest our way. These exhortations were sent via email and in meetings with faculty from several departments. My recruitment efforts were enormously successful: more than 20 students joined the program in December 2015 and January 2016, well over twice the average of “midstream” applicants per term in the several prior years. Moreover, this latest “midstream” class includes several identifiable members of traditionally underrepresented groups.
Finally, what about transfer students? Remember those memoranda of understanding (MOUs) I talked about above? In the past four years I have signed MOUs with eight two-year colleges in North Carolina, agreeing to recognize up to 9 hours of honors coursework transferring from these respective institutions. I am currently working with administrators of several other community-college honors programs to finalize yet more MOUs. In February 2014 I travelled with a faculty colleague, a representative of the Admissions Office, and a handful of Honors students on a two-day, six-campus tour of two-year colleges, at each of which we met with students, faculty, and administrators, encouraging them to send their graduating honors students our way.
Retention practices. Though formally there have been no changes to the means of measuring students’ fitness for retention in the program, the way those means are implemented have changed. Namely, students are no longer summarily removed from the program if they do not complete 6 hours of Honors coursework in their first 60 hours in the program; cases of such inactivity are considered on a case-by-case basis and removal is not effected without the student first meeting with me. Furthermore, students whose GPAs fall below the standards given above are often granted more than a single semester in which to raise their GPAs to the appropriate levels. For example, consider the case of a student whose GPA falls below 3.25 because of a single lousy class experience (e.g., an F in introductory physics). If the student’s GPA falls so far below 3.25 that even straight As the following term won’t bring the GPA back above 3.25, as long as the student makes satisfactory progress in raising the GPA, the student is kept in the program.
Below, I’ll talk about my plans to get rid of the GPA benchmarks altogether.
Assessment practices. I’ve made a number of changes to Honors Program assessment practices, beginning with my assessment of the program’s operations, something that was not done at all before.
Specifically, I’ve begun keeping track of the number of courses that are under- or over-enrolled; these data will help me to decide how many sections of various courses should be offered in a given term in order to meet students’ needs. I’ve also begun tracking the percentage of Honors courses taught by faculty in each of the “program areas” (Humanities, Social Science, Natural Science, and University Programs); these data will help me ensure that students are offered Honors courses taught by faculty from a wide variety of academic disciplines. More importantly, given that I place high value on the diversity not only of the students participating in the program but in the faculty as well, I’ve begun tracking the percentage of Honors courses taught by female faculty and faculty of color. These data, obviously, will help me ensure a more diverse community of Honors instructors.
Regarding more student-based operational outcomes, I’ve begun tracking the program’s success at graduating Distinction recipients and those students recognized as Community-Engaged Scholars, as well as students’ attendance of extra- and co-curricular activities sponsored by the program. All of these measures help to ensure that the program is meeting students’ social needs as well as their academic ones.
Assessment of student learning is essentially threefold, focusing on (1) students’ development of multi- and interdisciplinary expertise, (2) students’ participation in community engagement, and (3) students’ growth as citizens demonstrating ethical and moral awareness in their actions. Following are the official descriptions of the program’s student learning outcomes:
- Connections Among Disciplines. Students demonstrate an understanding of interdisciplinary inquiry and a recognition of its centrality in the liberal arts setting in general and the Honors Program in particular.
- Community Engagement. Students are active members of various communities, including the Honors Program, the university, and the Asheville community at large.
- Ethics and Morals of Citizenship. Students demonstrate an understanding of the ethical and moral obligations of an informed and engaged citizen.
All three of these outcomes are assessed at multiple points in the program, including all Honors sections of 178 and 478 courses and all Honors special topics courses. This rich longitudinal assessment has helped me to develop a much fuller view of the Honors Program’s impact on students’ academic progress and encourages me to always be thinking about new ways to facilitate greater involvement in the community at large and to engage students in activities related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Back to the future: What’s next for UNCA’s Honors Program?
Admission practices. As described in the previous section, I’ve opened up admission procedures quite a bit, moving them toward a more “holistic” consideration of a student’s fitness for the program and away from a more traditional measurement of academic excellence. However, there’s still more to be done.
- Further “holism” in the online application. Next year’s online application will feature short-essay prompts designed to encourage students to demonstrate creativity, personality, and passion, as well as textbook academic excellence. Moreover, the application will no longer request information on students’ completion of AP exams and IB coursework and will dramatically limit the number of extracurricular and community engagement activities applicants are asked to report. At present, students are tacitly encouraged to offer a laundry list of clubs, student organizations, and athletic teams, as well as an exhaustingly exhaustive display of civic volunteerism. Traditionally, many students “game the system” by taking part in as many extracurricular and community service activities as they can, regardless of the fact that most folks are simply not able to commit themselves meaningfully to more than a handful of such activities at a time. Next year’s application will ask applicants to report no more than a small handful of such activities, but it will also request that they reflect on those activities meaningfully: what role did the applicant play in this student organization? What did they learn from performing that service to the community? How will the student bring that new knowledge into play in the UNCA Honors Program?
- Alternative means of screening applicants. In addition to making further changes to the online application, I plan to invite (or require) future applicants to demonstrate fitness for the program through means other than writing. Specifically, I would like to enlist the help of the faculty Honors Program Advisory Committee and the newly-formed Student Honors Advisory Committee in conducting Skype interviews with all prospective Honors students. This practice, though requiring a bit of work to implement, would enable students who demonstrate academic excellence in modalities other than writing to showcase their scholarly talent and passion for learning. Almost certainly this opportunity would lead to a more diverse group of Honors students.
I should note that one of the reasons I’ve not yet implemented this procedure is resource limitations: given how busy both students and faculty are in the middle of the spring semester (when screening of applicants generally takes place), it’s been hard to enlist the help I need to do this!
- Deferred admissions for all? For various reasons (among them a disruption of the academic “tracking” that runs continuously through K-12 education), I have given thought to the idea of deferring admission to all students until after they have completed at least one semester of college work. This is the practice at a small number of other colleges, the basic premise being that it is impossible to predict, on the basis of pre-university work, a particular student’s fitness for a college honors program: some students excel in K-12 but for whatever reason do poorly in college, while others find their grooves only once they reach college, where they become model scholars.
Furthermore, in future years I plan on making even more earnest attempts to recruit “midstream” students through further outreach to students and faculty. I will continue meeting with all 178 classes and with all university faculty, and I will send out emails to all non-Honors students at the end of each semester, encouraging application to and participation in the program. Furthermore, beginning in December 2016 I will encourage more participation from transfer students by instituting a new recognition, fittingly called “Recognition as an Honors Scholar,” which will be accorded to a number of students completing at least 12 hours of Honors coursework. This recognition will be put in place in order to acknowledge the work done by those students who, for various reasons (e.g., transfer to the university after two or more years of study elsewhere), are unable to complete the relatively rigorous requirements of Distinction as a University Scholar.
All of these planned changes are part of a shift to a more “asset-based” model of Honors, as opposed to a “deficit-based” model; in the former, the emphasis is placed on the scholarly strengths of prospective Honors students and not on their liabilities: we gain much when we recognize the talents of prospective students that may not be indicated on standardized tests or by completion of AP courses. This acknowledgement of assets in favor of deficits mirrors analogous acknowledgements in community engagement and democratic pedagogy, ensuring the Honors Program’s future as a democratic body in that is actively engaged with the broader community.
Retention practices. Given the program’s decreasing reliance on traditional measures of academic excellence in identifying successful applicants, it makes little sense to continue using similarly outdated measures of excellence for retention purposes. Although I am as yet uncertain the final form new retention measures may take, I am toying with the idea of asking all instructors of Honors students to offer some sort of qualitative (not quantitative) feedback on those students’ performance in a given course. On the basis of such feedback, considered aggregately, a decision will be made regarding each student’s continued membership in the program. Effectively, every student’s continuance in the program will therefore be considered on a case-by-case basis, eliminating GPA from the retention picture entirely.
An alternative model might offer a “hybrid” set of benchmarks, according to which students might either (1) retain membership by carrying certain minimal GPAs or (2) fall short of these minima but stay in the program on the basis of their instructors’ recommendations.
I should note that one of the difficulties in implementing the changes described in this subsection is that most of these changes, unlike those I’ve already implemented and several more that I’d like to implement, will require the amendment of the course catalogue, which can only be done with approval of the Faculty Senate. Such changes, though not impossible to perform, often require considerable political maneuvering.
Assessment practices. At present I have no plans to modify current assessment practices considerably. I make minor year-to-year adjustments, generally to broaden the scope of the data collected, but I’ve intentionally avoided precipitous change: more than minor adjustments would render longitudinal data useless, and as yet I’ve collected too little data to be sure of the program’s trajectory.
A general comment on the future of the Honors Program
I would like to close with one additional, very broad, comment on the future of the program. It is a truism to say that the program is always in flux and that its direction is uncertain. As the program grows and changes and slides this way and that, I strongly believe that neither its governance nor guidance belong in my hands alone. I have taken steps recently to more easily allow others input on the program’s design and activity:
- As part of my reappointment as director, all faculty who have taught in Honors in the past four years provided input on my performance. This input has informed many of the proposals I’ve described above.
- I recently appointed a brand-new Student Honors Advisory Committee, a body charged with planning and facilitating extra- and co-curricular activities. They’ve already run a bingo night, a pancake dinner, and two iterations of a student seminar series, the Sparks Lectures. They will serve a pivotal advisory role as well.
- This coming May, I will be offering a faculty development workshop on Honors pedagogy and practices. Dr. Marietta Cameron, Chair of the Computer Science Department and frequent instructor in the Honors Program, will lead this workshop with me. Workshop participants will, among other things, hold conversations on the mission of the Honors Program and help to develop a vision of the future of the program.
- In the next few days I will be “rebooting” my pedagogical blog, Change of Basis, a forum featuring over 600 posts on my teaching over the past decade. I plan to invite students, staff, and colleagues to contribute to the blog as guest feature-writers, and I plan to encourage many such guest writers to write about their perspectives on Honors. I hope that many of you will come forward as collaborators, and that your vision for the program will inform its future as much as will mine.
Thank you for reading this overview. I look forward to our conversation on Thursday, and to continued conversations beyond! Please also read over the chapter on elitism and honors programs, which I’ve included in sending you this. I believe you’ll find it a nice companion piece to the present document.