National Collegiate Honors Council


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From: The Demonstrable Value of Honors Education: New Research Evidence, edited by Andrew J. Cognard-Black, Jerry Herron, and Patricia J. Smith. (Lincoln, NE: NCHC, 2019). Copyright 2019 by National Collegiate Honors Councils.


Administered within over 1,500 honors colleges and programs in two- and four-year institutions worldwide (National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) 2017; Scott and Smith 2016; Wolfensberger 2015), honors education serves the best interests of students and adds quality to the academic mission of host institutions by promoting the highest intellectual standards. Necessarily differing in form and content, all honors programs and colleges share the goals of identifying and supporting the most talented students as they achieve success in college and as they learn how to prepare not only for successful careers, but also for lifelong learning and meaningful civic engagement (Humphrey 2008). Certainly honors enthusiasts believe that these goals are met through innovative and challenging programming in areas of curriculum, undergraduate research, community engagement and service, and leadership.

These beliefs, however, need to be backed by empirical data. Do honors programs and colleges achieve their goals? Do they increase the success of their students? Do they add measurable value to their institutions? How do we know? What data are needed to prove the worth of honors education, and how should those data be communicated to the administrators responsible for funding it—provosts, chancellors, and presidents? What are the obstacles to honors programs’ and colleges’ ability to gather those data and persuade various audiences? Nationally, a growing body of evidence confirms that honors students are more successful than other students (e.g., Cosgrove 2004; Pritchard and Wilson 2003). That every specific honors college or program know—not just hope or think—that it is effective in terms of recruiting, retaining, and promoting the success of its exceptional students is essential. Achieving this knowledge requires the right data, the right analyses, and the right communication. This paper details several ways to accomplish this task as well as some of the obstacles to this effort. We approach the idea of assessment and evaluation—or more simply, documenting positive effects of programs and persuading others of those effects—with social psychological research methods and while considering the politics of today’s higher education landscape. Specifically, we discuss how to obtain, understand, and use the simplest to the most complex data to prove the ultimate value of an honors program, and how to tailor messaging about those data. Honors colleges and programs are the model for undergraduate recruitment and success. Our goal is to help readers prove it.