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The promise and perils of community college honors programs

I remember being surprised when I discovered that honors programs are regarded with suspicion in much of the community college world. Years later, I still am.

The arguments against honors programs are both philosophical and practical. The philosophical ones usually revolve around elitism: community colleges are supposed to be egalitarian, the argument goes, so why make some students more equal than others? I’ll admit finding this argument utterly unconvincing. Community colleges are supposed to help students achieve their goals. If academic challenge is only available to students who can afford four-year tuition, what’s egalitarian about that? A grad school professor of mine used to say that nothing is too good for the proletariat. I’d phrase it differently, but I’m unapologetic in advocating for rigorous academic challenges for students who have uncommon talent but lack uncommon wealth.

The practical arguments are harder to dismiss, but none of them strikes me as dispositive. The most basic is around transfer. If four-year schools reduce transfer decisions largely to checklists—and many of them do—then there isn’t much room for an honors program. That’s partially true, though many private colleges and universities are more open than that. The recent enrollment crunch has also helped students transfer their credits, as the four-year sector has seen a drop-off in transfer enrollments. Market pressures have a way of focusing the discussion.

A more troubling argument revolves around student incentives. Given that many scholarships are based on GPA, a student might well ask why they should risk a hit to their GPA by taking harder classes. Some high schools try to get around that issue by weighting grades in honors or AP classes: in other words, where an A in a regular class might be worth four points in the GPA, an A in an honors class might be worth five. That’s how you can have valedictorians with GPAs in the 4.8 range. Weighting is a fraught issue in some high schools, but I don’t imagine many four-year schools would take it seriously coming from a college.

I haven’t found the magic answer to this one, other than to notice that when the classes are sufficiently compelling, some students will take the risk. This can be where ambitious, themed learning communities can work, for example.

Logistics present issues, too. Setting aside dedicated honors sections assumes both a critical mass of students for those sections and enough uniformity of available times to populate them. Given the complicated lives community college students have, that’s a tall order. I’ve seen “linked” courses have to delink in order to enroll enough students to run. That was a challenge before the pandemic; now with lower enrollments, it’s even harder, particularly at smaller places. In theory, online classes could help with that, but too heavy a share of them can make it harder to build the sense of a cohort.

Disciplinary differences are real. It’s easy enough to envision an honors section of, say, Intro to Sociology. It might feature deeper research and/or more primary texts. But how does the honors/nonhonors distinction work with calculus? A math professor once told me that every Calc III section is a de facto honors class. I couldn’t really argue. Excluding STEM students from honors programs hardly seems fair. I’d love to hear from my STEM-focused readers on how to make this work.

I’ve also had some faculty object that preparing an honors section is more work. In my own teaching, I always found sections with stronger and more motivated students energizing. Honors sections were plums, not burdens. Suffice it to say that faculty members can be found on both sides of this question.

Even granting the real obstacles, though, I have to stand on the basic assumption that students with uncommon academic talent and drive are just as much members of the community as everybody else. They deserve educational opportunities that fit their needs. Honors programs can sometimes offer room for the kind of academically ambitious classes that may not fit in a standard pathway. They can prepare students for rigorous transfer programs. They can even help high-achieving students who are hesitant to enroll at a community college due to the stigma. If the programs take a bit of ingenuity, well, what programs don’t?

In the meantime, I’d be happy to hear from my wise and worldly readers who have figured out solutions to the practical issues outlined above. There has to be a way.

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