Date of this Version
Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2017), pp 163-175
Improving rates of honors program completion is a goal of virtually all honors directors and deans, and research can help identify and evaluate promising strategies. A number of recent empirical studies have investigated predictors of program completion, including students’ admission credentials and honors program features. Though specific indicators of honors program success vary across institutional contexts and even by student cohorts within programs, some patterns have emerged. For instance, high school grade point average (GPA) tends to be a better predictor of honors program success than SAT scores (McKay; Savage et al.; Smith & Vitus Zagurski). Other completion studies focusing on program characteristics have identified positive effects from honors housing (Campbell & Fuqua; Goodstein & Szareck; Kampfe, Chazek, & Falconer), mid-program recognition (Goodstein & Szareck), and other organizational structures and features highlighted in NCHC’s Basic Characteristics of a Fully Developed Honors Program (Spurrier). Practices that build program identity, a sense of belonging, and social capital— such as new student retreats (Walters & Kanak) and first-year seminars (Vander Zee et al.)—may have a particularly strong impact on students as they start their careers in honors. One such approach that has gained popularity on campuses across North America is the offering of outdoor orientation programs (OOPs) (Bell, Holmes, & Williams). These programs are typically short and intensive (two to five days in duration) and work well for small college groups (e.g., resident assistants, peer mentors, learning communities, and honors groups). OOPs offer high-impact experiences such as hiking and team problem-solving that enable participants to achieve goals together, bond, and create shared meaning (Lien & Goldenberg). Retention studies on OOPs designed for incoming freshmen, with samples drawn from the general college population, consistently show small but statistically significant increases in first-year retention and college degree completion (e.g., Bell & Chang; Michael et al.). However, no research has specifically investigated the impact of OOP participation on honors program success. The current study considers this variable among other incoming student predictors of honors program persistence and completion. Each student who is accepted to the Salem State University Honors Program is invited to attend a free, two-day, new honors student retreat held in mid-August on Cape Cod. The retreat is a typical outdoor orientation program that includes ice-breaker activities, high and low ropes challenges, canoeing, swimming, games, and campfire. There are no formal advising or orientation sessions, though advising/orienting does occur in informal settings like the breakfast table or the waterfront at sunset. In addition to new students, attendees include honors program coordinators, two to five honors faculty members, and four to six honors peer leaders, who are members of the honors student council and/or honors students who work in our honors center. The programming goals are to build community, reduce anxiety about college, and enculturate students to the honors program’s traditions, expectations, and values. The honors program has been returning to the same camp facility for the past seventeen years, and the cost of the outdoor orientation program, including transportation, is low (less than $200 per student in 2016). The current study helps to determine the orientation’s return on investment with respect to honors program completion.