American Honors Changes the Game for Transfer Students

By Corey Murray

Completion is priority No. 1 for the nation’s community colleges. But getting beyond the pilot phase to achieve truly scalable results has proved difficult for some. Now, a new nationwide honors initiative that aims to fast-track high-performing students is gaining traction — and its fair share of headlines. But is it right for your college?

At first blush, there’s nothing terribly groundbreaking about the American Honors (AH) program. Like other community college honors initiatives, AH essentially picks the low-hanging fruit, providing counseling and additional academic services for talented community college students who boast a high probability of academic success.

Students who are accepted into AH pay a slightly higher tuition than their peers. That money goes toward a suite of honors services, including a rigorous curriculum aligned to National Collegiate Honors Council guidelines, access to dedicated faculty, online courses, smaller class sizes and custom academic and career counseling. But the real capstone for students is the ability to transfer to a competitive four-year college.

After launching its first pilot at the Community Colleges of Spokane nearly two years ago, AH has been busy. The program, currently available on a handful of campuses, plans to serve more than 1,000 students across as few as nine and as many as 11 two-year campuses by next fall. Organizers say the program has designs to expand to as many as 50 U.S. community colleges in the near future.

At a time when the nation’s two-year colleges are under pressure to improve completion rates and some have openly struggled with efforts to take promising practices to scale, AH Chief Academic Officer David Finegold says his program has developed a blueprint that so far is working, largely thanks to two distinct advantages: choice and cost.

Casting a wider net

Articulation agreements are nothing new. Community colleges have worked for years to provide pathways for students to transfer to four-year colleges and universities. But those agreements have typically been limited to a single college or state-funded institution, explains Finegold.

AH has been steadily working with some of the nation’s most respected private and public four-year colleges to expand those options. Recently, the program announced agreements with 27 
participating four-year institutions, ranging from small liberal arts colleges, such as Amherst and Smith, to large public research universities, such as Purdue and Ohio State, to name a few.

“With American Honors, for the first time, we really see the widening of that opportunity to the very best public and private universities across the country,” Finegold says.

Students are not necessarily guaranteed admission into participating AH institutions — in most cases, learners still have to meet certain academic criteria to get in — but administrators say the program offers a gateway to a wider array of quality academic choices at prices students and their families can more easily afford.

Sustainable costs

While each community college maintains a slightly different pricing structure, and students who are accepted into AH pay more for access to additional services, Finegold say the average price per year (AH is a two-year program) is still significantly less than what a student would expect to pay for the first two years at a four-year institution.

“Our goal is to keep the total price very close to the level of Pell,” he says. “So that we can have an honors college that matches the diversity of the college as a whole and that every qualified student, regardless of financial means, has the ability to attend.”

Our goal is to keep the total price very close to the level of Pell.

In an interview with The New York Times, Chris Romer, president of Quad Learning, Inc., the venture capital backed parent company that runs AH, put it this way: “We like to think about the price as being halfway between a community college and a four-year, open-access university. If we can do the first two years of college for $12,000, that’s a game changer for a lot of families.”

Romer might be right. But why should AH students have to pay a premium to benefit from the program’s services? Community colleges want to make it as easy as possible for motivated students to enroll. Doesn’t offering these services at an increased cost — even if it’s still a discount compared with four-year colleges — create yet another potential hurdle for low-income students to overcome?

Finegold says the reason for the fees is simple: AH needs the program to scale and a fee-based system is the only way to guarantee the program stays funded and growing, no matter what. Grants end. Federal and state coffers dry up. But student-funded programs live on.

“I’ve been involved in a lot grants in my career,” says Finegold, who previously coordinated community college partnerships for Rutgers University in New Jersey. “The challenge is always if it’s a grant-funded program and it runs out, what do you do? Or, if it’s a program where you are subsidizing every student, it becomes really hard to grow it.”

His take: “For students, thinking about paying a little more, but knowing that in two years they are going to have some really great options, often with really large scholarship support, is what I think they are putting the biggest priority on.”

What’s your take? Could an American Honors-style program work for your college?

Corey Murray

is editor of the 21st-Century Center.

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