Creating Honors Programs that are Attractive to Prospective Students

John W. Dysart
President
The Dysart Group, Inc.

Honors Programs can be beneficial to institutions in a variety of ways.  They can be useful in attracting high-ability students.  They can be effective in increasing enrollment and can improve retention rates.  Honors Programs can raise the academic discourse on campus and can even challenge faculty and staff in positive ways.  Many colleges and universities have Honors Programs but few are structured in a manner that make them very attractive to prospective students.

More... There are several things that administrators should avoid when introducing or upgrading their Honors Programs:
· Do not set the standards too high for your particular institution.  While a minimum ACT score of 27 might be fine for an institution that averages a score of 23, it may be unrealistic for a college with an ACT average of 19.
  · Do not require interviews with candidates.  Interviews can be intimidating and may dissuade qualified candidates.  Reasonable decisions about eligibility for an Honors Program can be made by reviewing standardized test scores and high school grade point averages.  If necessary, a review of a high school transcript is always an option.
· Do not require written recommendations.  I have always believed that recommendations were dubious.  Students are unlikely to submit recommendations from individuals that will not support their candidacy and poor recommendations are always dicey in this litigious society.
· Make offers of admission to your Program on a rolling basis if general admission offers are made on the same timetable.  Making prospective candidates wait until the Spring semester makes no sense if you wish to use the Honors Program to enhance recruitment.
· It is not necessary to have separate applications for the Honors Programs.  Qualified students can be identified during the general admission process and offered a chance to participate upon acceptance to the college or university.
· Separate essays should not be required.  A review of the high school transcript and standardized test scores provides sufficient data on writing skills.
Attractive Honors Programs include attributes which are focused on privileges and activities that are desired by students:
· Include a research opportunity with a faculty member.
· Allow for special participation in select campus events such as opportunities to meet and eat with guest speakers on campus.
· Find a way to include even a short international travel experience.  While such activities can be expensive, you might be able to identify a Board member or foundation willing to assist with the cost.
· Including specific mentoring opportunities with faculty is imperative.  Consider compensating faculty for making time for mentoring.  Compensation may even be an option for the previously suggested research participation opportunity.
· A nominal scholarship is appropriate.  Often administrators believe that extremely large awards or even full scholarships are necessary to attract students into Honors Programs.  My experience has been quite the opposite.  The attractiveness of an Honors Program is less about the money and more about the experience.
· Structure your program in a manner that builds resumes for participants.  A co-curricular transcript upon graduation can be an attractive bonus.
· Include a chance for independent study in areas of interest to the student.
· Activities involving service are becoming more popular.
· Make sure that your Program includes direct assistance for students interested in pursuing graduate study.  You may even wish to provide a chance for guaranteed acceptance into your graduate offerings if certain conditions are met.
· Expand the number of campus administrators involved in creating or up-grading the Honors Program.  Key faculty should obviously be involved, but the opinion of others is just as important.  Include the Chief Enrollment Officer to ensure the Program is competitive in the market.  The Financial Aid Director can assist in creating a nominal and affordable scholarship component.  Someone from the Development Office might assist in identifying sources of funding for desired initiatives.  Assistance from the Career Planning Office can help build the resume component and offer ideas that would be attractive to prospective employers.  An individual involved in Graduate Admissions can discuss what constitutes meaningful assistance for students interested in graduate degrees and can discuss ideas for guaranteed admission if your institution has graduate offerings.
So many Honors Programs are designed only by faculty members and they sometimes reflect the wants of the faculty rather than the needs of the students.  If you have an Honors Program, it is a good time to re-evaluate it.  If you do not have an Honors Program, it is a good time to design one.