National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version

Spring 2012


Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, Spring/Summer 2012, Volume 13, Number 1, special issue on The Economy of Honors


Copyright 2012 by the National Collegiate Honors Council.


In difficult budget times, especially at state colleges and universities, honors programs might seem too easy for budget-cutters to reduce, cut, or lose in the shuffle of administrative reorganization. Recent years have been financially perilous and hardly an easy time for honors programs or colleges to increase budgets. Using Western Carolina University (WCU) as a case study, I can nevertheless offer essential strategies to help sustain, preserve, or even expand honors on campuses where tight funding is the “new normal.”

In 1996, the honors program at Western Carolina University (WCU) was nearly dead. For a decade, the program existed in the basement of a building littered with surplus furniture and a few cast-off computers. Honors students numbered seventy-seven in all, with the support of a full-time secretary and a faculty member with half-time course release to serve as director. The program was almost unknown on campus after a succession of directors who sometimes did not last more than a year. Even in good budget years, paltry requests for additional funds for the program were often denied.

Today the program is a thriving honors college, housed in a new $51 million residential living complex for honors students and supported by a dean and three full-time staff members. While the university’s overall enrollment grew from 6,809 in 1997 to 8,919 by spring 2012, honors enrollment in the same period grew from 77 to 1,326. The standards for admission and retention in the program were raised. The total budget grew by nearly 600%. External revenue generated in that period topped $250,000. Even in the harsh budget years since 2009, there has been no talk of reducing the size of the college or cutting it; on the contrary, some operating budget cuts will be restored in 2012–13.

Four strategies largely account for the funding and capital increases that grew a nearly dead program into one of the most thriving enterprises on campus.