The University recently proposed changes to the University Honors Program that had been in development for over two years. These changes seem to address concerns about the program by current participants as well as others. Given its systemic issues, modifications to the program are a necessity. This realization by the administration shows a genuine concern for enhancing the rigor of the University’s academic program.
The current honors program is not much of a program. Instead, it is a smattering of requirements that sometimes have students interacting with each other and honors faculty; other times, students can go an entire semester without a true honors experience. While freshmen and sophomores are required to take at least one honors class each semester, students with more than 60 credits can fulfill their honors requirement in a variety of ways. Students can “convert” a class to honors status by completing a research project with a professor or even receive honors credit for writing about an internship experience. Both of these activities, while valuable in their own right, do not create a dynamic, interactive peer-learning environment.
Another problem with the old system was that many students entered the honors program because of auxiliary incentives rather than to immerse themselves in a rigorous academic experience. In the past, honors students received priority registration and many still continue to receive significant merit-based scholarships. These incentives do help to recruit top-tier students, but might leave the discussions within honors classes lacking if the students are not particularly committed to a higher level of academic achievement.
The new system, which is more selective and encompasses more honors requirements during the freshmen and sophomore years, might engender a more integrated group of honors students who are more committed to the educational principles of the program. The Honors Program, for its students, might now become a priority rather than an afterthought.
Current students – as they advance in their studies – often have a difficult experience trying to find honors courses that fulfill major requirements. The new system, which leaves junior year without honors requirements and senior year with a final honors seminar, should allow honors students to explore their individual paths at GW.
Additionally, the honors program does attract a bevy of great professors, and these changes should allow students and professors to more fully benefit from their classroom experiences.
It is important for administrators implementing the new honors program to learn from the mistakes of the past. A new honors program must be a comprehensive program, rather than a checklist of requirements. Administrators should explore implementing more required out-of-class activities to create an integrated honors experience.
It should be noted that the program relies heavily on four-credit classes. Honors courses are intended to be more intensive than regular classes and perhaps deserve the four-credit designation. However, this might be the first indication of a paradigm shift at the University as departments include four-by-four in their new initiatives.
Students and faculty at GW consistently engage in the practitioner versus academic debate. It was a central point of contention in the original search for a Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs and is also a hot topic for students in many departments. With an upgraded University Honors Program, GW will be able to boast of its commitment to educational excellence, in addition to its already well-known commitment to integration with D.C. experiential education.