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By Paul Bradley  /  
2013 August 5 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Aiming High

 Photo courtesy Community Colleges of Spokane

The STEM fields are one area of focus for the American Honors program.

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y
Aiming High
American Honors Program Steers Students To Top Colleges
By Paul Bradley, Editor, Community College Week

As potentially important pilot programs go, American Honors has been flying somewhat under the radar. It has some ambitious goals and some serious cash, but has been keeping a low profile.

Launched earlier this year by Quad Learning, a Washington D.C.-based venture capital fund, American Honors — which received $11 million in financing from several investor groups — is slowly building what it hopes will be a national network of community college honors programs that one day will enroll 50,000 students. It will award high-quality honors associate degrees and clear the way for students to transfer to some of the nation’s top universities.

American Honors is being tested at Ivy Tech Community College and at the Community Colleges of Spokane, where the first cohort of 17 students to go through the program is showing some encouraging results:

  • All of the transfer students were accepted to one or more universities;

  • 83 percent of the transfers were accepted into their “dream” school;

  • 71 percent of the students were accepted by a top national university, including Stanford, Cornell and Michigan.

  • The 17 transfer students have been awarded more than $2 million in scholarships and grants.

“Really, we are delighted with the pilot so far,” said Christine Johnson, CCS chancellor. “There is a lot of interest in our region and in other states and in the community college world.”

The program, launched by former venture capitalist Phil Bronner and former Colorado state senator Chris Romer, is rooted in the troubling reality that hovers over all American higher education: it’s grown far too expensive, especially for middle class households whose incomes have not kept pace with skyrocketing tuition increases. Four years at a top university, for example, can easily cost more than $200,000. And if a family has more than one child, those kinds of numbers are a bridge too far.

“After the recession, post-2008, there has been a lot of interest, a lot of students who are interested in affordable high-end programs,” said David Finegold, American Honors chief academic officer. “There is a real squeeze on the middle class.”

So American Honors strives to combine a community college cost structure with a rigorous academic curriculum. Students spend the first two years of their college career at a community college and then transfer, allowing them to earn a degree from a big-name university without the big-time price tag that usually comes with it.

“It’s academic rigor at a bargain price, with hands-on help to get students to where they want to go,” said Lisa Avery, dean
of American Honors and global education
at CCS.

American Honors employs many of the same strategies which community college educators know improve educational outcomes. Class sizes are kept small, typically capped at 20 students. Students attend college full-time, and are required to form learning communities, building friendships and holding each other to high standards. The program is delivered in a hybrid format, with online synchronous classes complemented by group meetings.

Honors advisors provide individualized support and coaching on academic progress, personal and career goals, and transfer to top four-year colleges. They help students choose classes, select the best fit for a transfer school, complete transfer applications and find scholarships and financial aid. Each student gets an individualized plan charting their pathway to a degree. The idea is to get students heavily invested in their own educations.

“We know the power of student engagement,” Johnson said. “It facilitates a different kind of learning. It’s about having students interact with each other and with the instructor.”

For all of that extra help, students accepted into the CCS program pay a premium. Students pay $5,985 for the year, compared to the in-state tuition rate of $3,921. That’s still much less than what a student would pay at a four-year school and slightly more than the maximum Pell Grant.

The American Honors premium is how Quad Learning makes its money. In return, it provides the intensive advising services, as well as the technological platform for online learning and interaction.

Johnson rejects criticism that American Honors has created a two-tiered pricing system.

“We really offer differential pricing already,” she said. “On the continuing education side, there are some very specialized programs that can be very pricey. Different programs have different cost structures. The nursing program doesn’t cost the same as the truck driving program. You really have to understand the business model.”

Johnson also defended inviting a for-profit company into the academic arena at a time when proprietary schools are under fire for caring more about profits than students.

“I know that for some of us, there is a lot of concern about the for-profit sector, and for good reason,” she said. “But that’s different from what we are doing here. Business can be our friend. It’s about a strategic aligning of interests. I am not willing to close doors to our students.”

Honors programs at community colleges are nothing new. Phi Theta Kappa, an honor society for community college students, has chapters at 1,250 two-year institutions around the world. But membership and participation in an honors program with its own separate and advanced coursework is not required.

About 40 percent of its chapters have separate honors programs. At those colleges, like American Honors, top students take demanding courses and are awarded an associate degree with honors. What distinguishes American Honors is its effort to build a collaborative curriculum among participating colleges and develop a series of agreed-upon learning outcomes. The outcomes will be used to persuade four-year colleges not only to accept the students, but the community college credits they have earned as well.

Colleges involved in American Honors must sign a 10-year participation agreement, Finegold said. That will allow the program to ramp up, expand to other colleges, measure results and build sustainability, Finegold said.

“We want to let students know that we’ll be there for the long haul,” he said.

The program is highly selective. Of the 232 students who applied last year, 48 were selected. This fall, CCS expects to admit about 160 students from an applicant pool of more than 600. The college enrolls more than 17,000 students.

Though there are some valedictorians and salutorians, most of the students rank in the top third of their high schools classes.

“Some of the students are diamonds in the rough,” Avery said. “We have students who are much more talented than their GPA suggests. They just need some more polish before applying to a Stanford or a Cornell.”

American Honors recruits the students based on their high school grades, Advanced Placement and SAT scores, extracurricular activities and other accomplishments. The program employs web-based marketing, direct mail and telephone solicitations to identify students from a broad geographical base that includes Washington, California, Utah, Montana and other states.

Promotional materials say that American Honors seeks “high achieving, highly motivated students who aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree from a top institution, but want to pay less for the first two years.”

College officials hope that American Honors will have a spillover effect, improving the college as a whole. Avery said it’s already happening.

“We’ve had some math teachers who have been teaching developmental math arguing now with one another about which book to use to teach honors calculus,” she said. “It’s energized a lot of people.”

Finegold predicts the program will burnish the reputation of community colleges as a whole.

“The upside of this, as we scale it up, is that we can elevate the reputation of community colleges and let people know there are large cohorts of talented students there,” he said.

IT'S YOUR TURN:  CCW wants to hear from you!
Q:Would your college welcome participation in programs such as American Honors?
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