Honors Program potentially linked to retention

By Senah Yeboah-Sampong

Columbia’s honors program rankings have grown exponentially as of fall 2012, according to a report from the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Data from the Office of Research, Evaluation and Planning suggest course offerings in the honors program are a factor in retaining second-semester freshmen. From fall 2011–2012, honors freshmen returned at a rate of 81.8 percent, compared to 70.2 percent who did not take honors classes, down from 75.8 percent in fall 2010–2011.

According to Andrew Whatley, assistant dean of Faculty Advising and LAS Initiatives, the data offer a clear look at the complicated area of enrollment, which has slipped to a four-year low, as reported by The Chronicle Sept. 17.

“We recognize that … not every student who has a very high GPA, is interested in the honors program,” said Neil Pagano, associate dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences and director of the Honors Program. “Students’ lives are very busy as they’re working on all their [graduation requirements], their internships or [other] additional jobs.”

Honors courses emphasize high levels of performance in more traditional academic areas, including history, science, social science and mathematics, he said.

Applicants are accepted into the program if they have a 3.5 cumulative GPA or upon an admissions review of their application materials, Pagano said.

The program has grown from the 72 students enrolled in the five honors sections offered in spring 2010  when the program started to 487 in fall 2012, or approximately 5 percent of the student body, Whatley said. There are currently 27 honors sections, according to the report.

The completion of 15 honors credits and a cumulative 3.5 GPA earns a student honors distinction upon graduation, according

to Pagano.

Honors classes are limited in size to 16 students, according to Erin McCarthy, associate professor in the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department who teaches honors courses. The students are asked to demonstrate innovative learning skills and in some cases lecture during the semester,

she added.

Nick McDowell, sophomore fiction writing major in the honors program, said he was drawn to the challenge the courses offered. He took honors Writing and Rhetoric II as a freshman.

“Students who are a little more motivated to do their work also surround you, and [there are] fuller class discussions and engagement with the material,” McDowell said. “You learn more when everyone’s kind of pulling their own weight.”

Dan Schroeder,  sophomore film & video major, said he was one of a few students participating in the honors section of the First-Year Seminar. He said he received high quality feedback from his peers and instructors.

“With the [honors] classes, it’s a roundtable discussion,” Schroeder said. “Nobody’s doing that trick where everybody’s trying to hide.”

McCarthy said she was worried when she taught her first honors class, Oral History: The Art of the Interview, because she wasn’t sure the freshmen who made up the class could handle the demands of the course. She said they proved her wrong.

She said she now teaches an additional honors course, The Great Depression & the New Deal: The U.S. in the 1930s in addition to non-honors course, Baseball in History and Literature: A Contested Narrative.

She said she is glad honors students are building a community but wonders whether creating an “honors faculty” might promote an air of exclusivity around the program.

Schroeder said he is excited to be in an institution that demands a greater investment from him.

“I feel like what I had to say was important, and [my classmates] made me feel that way,” he said. “I think I helped everybody else and myself learn.