Recruiting for the Public Honors College
Last week I paid a visit to the new Honors College building at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. It’s an impressive student-oriented public honors college facility, as you will from the pictures that I have added to my Pinterest page. I wouldn’t mind living there myself as a guest faculty member (there are two, plus the Dean) or the residence life director. Heck, I’d go back to school again and live there as a student if I could also be 18 again. On opening day 530 freshmen moved into their brand-new home. Next year 30 will stay on as Peer Mentors. The rest will either more into Honors housing closer to their major classes, or move into apartments or Greek life.
Rutgers had done a good job running a public honors college before their new building went up. The university already had more than 1,000 freshmen in honors-level programs, some tied to housing in learning communities on campus. The average SAT for these students, according to a 2014 review of public honors colleges, was 1470 (out of 1600). The six-year graduation rate was 96 percent. That was the same as the Honors Program at the University of Michigan–and few associate Rutgers with Michigan. The Rutgers students in the public honors college could have been Ivy Leaguers had they made a different decision. Thankfully for Rutgers, they didn’t. This current year, the freshman honors students who chose Rutgers, no doubt attracted to the new facility, helped raise the average SAT for the entire freshman class by 20 points.
No doubt Rutgers, and similar schools, want these students, and want to keep them engaged. I have affinity for Rutgers. I went there. I want the students who are there now to get better than what I got. They have to contribute to the future economy so that I can quit working some day. The visit had me thinking: how do public honors colleges recruit high school students? How do they entice them to apply not only to go honors, but also to choose a school that might not be on their radar?
Rutgers admits honors students by invitation. Students do not need to write extra essays to be considered as a freshman; they may do that to get in as a sophomore. The honors program administrators consider the same materials as the admissions and financial aid offices do. Selection to the Honors College is not tied to money, although the admissions office likely awarded each student a merit scholarship. These can range from $3,500 a year to a totally free ride with a stipend. It is up to the Honors College deans to “sell” Rutgers vs. a more selective private college. This year they, likely with help from honors students and faculty, got a fifth of the invitees to commit. That’s excellent for a university, that while one of the better state schools, is not in hearts and minds like Michigan or Penn State.
Other schools make you work hard to get into a public honors college. Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College, one of the best, requires three additional essays, as well as its own $30 application fee. Apply by November 30th and you can take an optional interview.
Why does Penn State follow this process? I see these reasons:
• Test scores–they average 1400 for entering freshmen at Schreyer–are not always the best indicator that a student can do honors-level work.
• The folks who run this public honors college want to give anyone who wants to do the extra work–the first essay question looks hard–a chance to be considered.
Rutgers and Penn State, among others, no doubt pitch their honors colleges on their admissions road shows. If I worked in admissions, I go to the College Board and buy the names of the in-state students with the top scores on the SAT. I also contact the ACT and get names. I try to accept these students before the Ivies do, and get them on campus for an Accepted Students Day as quickly as possible. The way I’d see it, I’d be on a mission to stop the “brain train” from leaving my state.
The process of filling the class does not stop with admissions. A good public honors college, like those at Rutgers and Penn State, has its own faculty advisors and residence life staff. Honors students at these very large–both have over 30,000 undergraduates–schools get the level of attention that they might receive at a smaller liberal arts college. But they need the help to navigate the bureaucracy and rules common to life at the largest of schools.
The prospective students for the public honors college are not usually courted early, as highly-skilled athletes would be. But that doesn’t matter. Rutgers, for example, has welcomed more freshman honors students than scholarship varsity athletes. The scholarship varsity athletes, like the honors students, do not always receive a full-ride. Some, like baseball players, are offered only a partial scholarship. The best of the honors students have nicer housing than their classmates, even the athletes, who are assigned to live together in on-campus apartments. The athletes, like the honors students, have their own academic advisors. But the honors students, to no surprise, are more engaged with the student body than the athletes will ever be.
Too often I read complaints that Rutgers and Penn State, among others, are more interested in becoming sports powers at the expense of academics. Too often the academics at these schools are among those who spread that message. The more that I learn about their public honors colleges, the more that I want to say shame on them.