- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2004

Bronwyn Stippa had all but made up her mind to attend New York University, a top-notch private college. A campus visit to the University of Vermont, where she had been accepted to a new honors college, was just a favor to her parents.

“I came up and it was just mind-blowing,” she said. “I totally did a 180.” Vermont promised her access to top professors and special courses, and a financial aid package that dwarfed NYU’s. For her, picking Vermont became a no-brainer.

“Coming here, I figured I would have to challenge myself more,” said Miss Stippa, a freshman from Coxsackie, N.Y. “I’m realizing that’s not the case at all.”

Trying to lure students like Miss Stippa, public universities across the country are rapidly developing honors colleges that advertise the cozy qualities of a liberal arts college within the walls of a university.

Some honors colleges have been around for decades, but the majority have cropped up since the mid-1990s, when competition for students sharpened and ambitious presidents embraced honors colleges as a way to raise their profiles. Vermont’s opened this fall; City University of New York and Miami-Dade College, a two-year school, are among others created recently.

Yet the rapid expansion has raised some concerns about how honors colleges fit into the mission of state universities, and about whether some schools are rushing them out in response to competitive pressure.

For students, an honors college can offer smaller classes, priority scheduling, research opportunities, and a residence hall where they can rub shoulders with fellow overachievers.

Honors colleges also are popular with donors. In 2000, Intel Chief Executive Officer Craig Barrett and his wife, Barbara, donated $10 million to Arizona State’s; today the university has 482 National Merit Scholars on campus, compared with four when the honors college opened. At the University of Arkansas, two-thirds of a $300 million gift from the Walton family, of Wal-Mart fame, was used to support an honors college there.

However, the spread of such programs has led to questions about the funding showered on a few students. On the other end, some worry universities aren’t spending enough, rolling out honors colleges that fail to supply the resources to provide a truly distinctive experience.

Another worry is simply how to define “honors college.”

Honors colleges generally are more comprehensive and separate from the rest of the university than an “honors program,” but they vary in scope. The National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) next month plans to discuss several steps, including accreditation, to narrow the definition of an “honors college.”

“We’re concerned with the phenomenon,” said Peter Sederberg, dean of the Honors College at the University of South Carolina. “You are presenting yourself to the public as having something more than an honors program, and no one has really articulated what that ‘more’ ought to be.”

Mr. Sederberg believes a true honors college should have certain characteristics, such as a separate application, an administrator who carries the title “dean,” and a residential component. But his survey results revealed some of the NCHC honors colleges don’t meet all of those proposed definitions.

“It’s a matter of truth in advertising,” Mr. Sederberg said. “It ought to mean something substantively, and not just a flashy new brochure.”

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