Applicant pool surges for honors program

Applicants visiting GW this week peppered University Honors Program officer Liz Sutton with questions about the program’s partial shift to the Mount Vernon Campus next fall.

But as 9 percent more students applied to the program this year than last – part of an upward trend over the past three years – Sutton said she has no problem selling its new dual-campus model to prospective students.

“I help them envision life on the dual campuses,” Sutton said, adding that students can split up their days between the Vern and Foggy Bottom to take advantage of academic and student life offerings on both campuses.

The honors program’s upswing in applications is validation for administrators who shifted the program’s first-year housing option and most freshman classes to stamp an “academic identity” on the satellite campus, Provost Steven Lerman said.

Criticism of the dual-campus model by some students in the honors program at a series of town halls last fall stained the decision last semester, but Lerman – who had sought to make the honors program a national model – said the application numbers helped show that incoming students will “vote with their feet.”

“This is a vehicle for attracting some student who might go to an Ivy,” Lerman said. “It gives an alternative for GW to present them with what might, in some ways, be a better educational experience because of its small scale that they may not get into an Ivy League university.”

Some current students said relocating the program’s living cohort to the Vern would steer applicants away from the program. Many claimed the divergence from the Foggy Bottom Campus would split the honors program’s currently close-knit community.

About 130 incoming freshmen will matriculate into the program – on par with previous years – but the growth in student interest proves that the program continues to draw high-achieving students to the University, Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Planning Forrest Maltzman said.

“There is a group of students who find GW more attractive because of our honors program. I want these students to come to GW and to flourish in the intellectual community we are creating,” Maltzman, who spearheaded the creation of the dual-campus model, said.

About 2,750 students applied to the program when submitting their applications to the University. About 900 of the top applications are typically referred to the honors program’s office for review, Maltzman said.

The honors program, made up of students in five of GW’s schools, has seen a 37 percent surge in applications since 2009, when about 2,000 students applied.

Maria Frawley, executive director of the honors program, said she doubts that the dual-campus model weighed heavily on the minds of applicants.

The increase in applications has led the program to be more selective in recent years, Sutton said, adding that a small honors program gives students more individualized attention.

While upper-level honors classes will remain on Foggy Bottom, the program’s administrative offices will divide across its Foggy Bottom townhouse and Webb Building on the Vern. Freshmen in the program can choose to live together in West Hall, which was opened in 2010.

About 75 percent of freshmen in the honors program this year reside in honors-only housing in Thurston Hall.

A survey of freshmen in the honors program conducted in summer 2011 showed that nearly 70 percent of students would likely still join the program if honors housing were offered on the Vern. The program will not know how many students opted to live in West Hall until first-year housing assignments are doled out in June.

“The honors program provides students with the opportunities to be in a small environment and to get to know their peers,” honors program communications coordinator Jared Meyer said. “Living on the Vern will give students the best of both worlds. They will have an intimate liberal arts environment, along with urban life.”

The program will also add a faculty member to live near honors students on the Vern, expanding the campus-wide faculty in residence program. Assistant professor of honors and philosophy Mark Ralkowski, who will likely live in Somers Hall, said he plans to help build up the community’s social side by taking students to museums, theater performances and D.C. United games.

Honors faculty, who serve dual appointments by the program and their departments, will have offices together for the first time next year on both Foggy Bottom and the Vern.

Four faculty fellows will also join the program next fall when they spend a year on sabbatical performing research in Ames Hall and teaching an honors class for one semester. Associate professor of public policy and public administration Lori Brainard, civil and environmental engineering professor Kim Roddis, art history professor Barbara von Barghahn-Calvetti and associate professor of political science John Sides were tapped as fellows last month.

This article was updated on April 16, 2012:
Due to a reporting error, The Hatchet incorrectly reported that faculty fellows would be housed in Ames Hall next year. In fact, when they teach a semester of honors classes, their offices will be in the Webb Building. When they are on campus performing research, they will use shared faculty space in Ames Hall.

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