The honors problem: Extra tuition and high dropout rates in the Clark Honors College

Students exiting Chapman Hall, the building that houses the Clark Honors College.

Incoming students at the Robert D. Clark Honors College typically look forward to having small class sizes, building relationships with professors and working with students who are academically driven.

But between the cost and the time commitment, the honors college may not be worth it for some students.

For freshman Avery Turner, it almost seemed like a punishment. Turner found herself paying $4,194 on top of regular tuition. Turner said that after working hard in high school, it was frustrating to pay more to work harder. She also said the college was slowing her down — without it, Avery could graduate in three years with a double major in psychology and political science.

Avery is not alone. Many other students agree with her sentiments and highlight a number of concerns with CHC at the University of Oregon. CHC can be expensive and doesn’t include enough science courses or fit with students’ heavy credit loads, leading many to ask the same question: Is the honors college worth it?

For some current and former CHC students, the answer to that question is simple. “It’s a complete waste of time,” said junior Blake Gesik, who regrets not dropping the honors college.

The honors problem: Extra tuition and high dropout rates in the Clark Honors College

Chapman Hall, home of the Robert D. Clark Honors College.

Between 2011 and 2014, an average of 60 percent of the freshmen who began in the honors college were still in CHC by fall of their senior year. This means that 40 percent of CHC students dropped out.

Students who leave the honors college tend to cite CHC’s curriculum, issues related to their major and finances as the top reasons for leaving, according to retention data received from the UO Office of Public Records. Some students transfer to another institution while others drop out of the college to graduate from the general university.

About 15 percent of the students who dropped cited financial reasons, according to the data.

UO is taking some response to the high dropout rate. President Michael Schill announced a proposal to reduce CHC tuition differential by $1,494 in a campus-wide email on Friday, lowering the tuition differential to $2,700. UO is also trying to make it less expensive for honors students to live in the CHC Academic Residential Community.

“We’re still trying to figure out what leads them to leave,” Samantha Hopkins, one of the CHC’s associate deans, said. She also said that although she’s been examining the data from surveys of students who leave, the data doesn’t necessarily reveal “the whole picture.”

CHC is an 800-person liberal arts college for high-achieving students within the UO, accepting a class of 240 freshmen annually. It’s ranked in the top 10 public honors colleges in the U.S. by Public University Honors, a third-party review organization. Many other colleges and universities have similar programs, including Oregon State.

Students usually take one or two CHC classes each term. These classes are limited to 19 or fewer students, emphasize small group discussion and are geared towards humanities. Honors students also get priority registration. The CHC curriculum replaces the university general education requirements.

Freshman Ivy McClure enrolled in CHC for the small, discussion-based classes, a curriculum focused on the liberal arts and a community of high-achieving students.

“I probably would not have come to the UO if I did not get into the honors college,” McClure said. “I probably would have pursued a liberal arts school that had that smaller and challenging community.”

Hopkins said that one of the reasons public universities have honors colleges is to attract the best in-state students.

“Of honors college students, one-third of CHC students chose to come to the UO because of the honors college specifically,” CHC representative Caitlyn Kari said.

McClure is applying to major in music education and wants to be a school choir director. She’ll have to take 21 credits for some terms to graduate on time.

“That’s technically possible [to complete],” McClure said, “but it’s scary.”

McClure also said that, for her, the high credit requirement of both programs makes completing both programs difficult — she’s considering dropping out of CHC.

“The students that are interested in both of those [programs] have kind of a tough road ahead of them,” McClure said. “I don’t think it’s the honors college’s fault.”

Some science students say that the CHC’s liberal arts-heavy curriculum does not dovetail with the requirements of hard science majors such as biology or chemistry, which require strict three-term sequences. About 40 percent of CHC students were majoring in a natural science, according to data from the UO Office of Institutional Research.

CHC faces challenges in offering coursework that is relevant to science students, according to Hopkins.

“The challenge is that natural scientists — unlike scholars in the humanities and social sciences — have a different research footprint,” Hopkins said. “We all do scholarship, but natural science also requires a lab and a bunch of space.” Hopkins added that it’s “tricky” negotiating between the needs of the honors college for science faculty and the needs of science departments to maintain their teaching capability to the general student population.

“If you’re going to invest that money, small classes also are great for the student experience,” Hopkins said. “They give students individual attention so that you don’t lose freshmen — a perennial problem with big classes with freshmen.”

Hopkins was the first tenure-related science faculty to be hired by the honors college, and she said that the CHC is also trying to hire more science faculty, but this process has some roadblocks.

“We’re hoping that we will get to a point where we can teach science in exactly the same way we do social science and humanities. We just don’t have it yet,” Hopkins said.

Students with other credit-intensive majors or those who are attempting to double-major also experience frustrations with the honors college.

“In order to graduate on time, basically starting next term, I would have [had] to take several three-hundred levels during the same term and honors stuff, and I don’t know if I’d be able to keep up with that,” said Katie Quines, a former CHC student. Quines is double-majoring in philosophy and economics.

Plenty of honors students walked into UO with a large amount of college credit from either dual enrollment, AP or IB credit from high school, which would help fulfill general education requirements.

But within CHC, AP and IB credits only apply toward certain requirements. Some of the college credit these students carry do not apply toward CHC requirements, causing them to take repetitive courses.

“I took another year of English that I didn’t need to take. I took another year of history that I already had credits for,” Blake Gesik said.

Students also find that the honors college is too expensive. An in-state CHC student pays $15,765 for tuition and fees for the 2017-18 year. An out-of-state student pays $38,805. Oregon State’s honors college, in contrast, only costs $1,500 extra a year.

“Four thousand-something a year is a little too much for me,” Quines said.

The university is reducing the differential tuition by 35.6 percent with efficiency cuts to the college and devoting $800,000 from the university’s strategic investment budget.

Many students struggling to pay the differential could still struggle despite the tuition reduction next year.

For ASUO President Amy Schenk, attending the honors college would “be infeasible” for her without the scholarships that pay her CHC tuition differential.

“I think the issue is affordability with honors college differential, but also accessibility to the college, which ties I think directly with affordability,” Schenk said. “I think it’s just another way to say, in a sense, ‘is it accessible to every person who applies?’”

The honors problem: Extra tuition and high dropout rates in the Clark Honors College

Percentage of Pell-Grant eligible undergraduate students per college at UO. Clark Honors College has the lowest number of low income students, at 15.6 percent. 

Only 16 percent of CHC students in 2017 were Pell Grant eligible, or low income. That’s less than the average for UO –– about 25 percent of UO students as a whole are Pell Grant eligible, according to data on the website of the UO Office of Institutional Research.

CHC students are also encouraged to live in the CHC ARC that is housed in Global Scholars Hall, which is one of the more expensive dorms on campus. The cheapest room type in GSH costs $2,500 more than the least expensive room type in University Housing overall.

For students who cannot afford to live in or choose not to live in GSH, this can create a divide between CHC students who live in GSH and those who don’t.

While UO is working to solve some of these problems by reducing tuition and improving course diversity, it is grappling with large systemic issues.

Podcast Editor

Ryan Nguyen is the podcast editor and an aspiring education reporter. He manages, produces and edits several Emerald Podcast Network programs a week. Previously, Nguyen covered student government as a news reporter.

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