Swarthmore is known for its Honors program. The number of Swatties actually receiving an Honors diploma, however, has dropped in recent years. Between 2008 and 2012, an average of 112 students received this diploma. In 2013, the number had dropped to 89. Last spring, only 82 students completed the Honors program.
There are currently about 105 students in the class of 2015 enrolled in Honors, about the same number of students in the class of 2014 who planned to pursue Honors in fall 2013. According to Provost Tom Stephenson, at least nine individuals from the class of 2015 have dropped Honors since the end of last spring semester — a number that’s “very consistent” with previous years.
“If the numbers hold exactly true for this year as they did for last year, then it would probably end up in the low eighties again,” said Craig Williamson, Honors program coordinator and professor of English literature. “We really don’t know why these numbers dropped in recent years and we’re very concerned about it.”
Provost Tom Stephenson echoed this sentiment.
“We’d like to see numbers that are more like 25 to 30 percent of the class in Honors, we’re now at more like 20 percent of the class in Honors,” he said. “We’d like to see more students finding Honors as being an attractive thing to do.”
Both Stephenson and Williamson consider the Honors program as an integral part of Swarthmore’s identity as a college.
“I think Honors is a really historically important program that in some ways distinguishes Swat from a lot of schools in that it provides an opportunity to engage with the broader scholarly community in their fields and to engage in defined fields of study in an in-depth ways,” said Stephenson.
Williamson called Honors the school’s “signature program” and deemed it “the most challenging and rewarding program overall that Swarthmore has to offer.” Swarthmore seniors interviewed, regardless of their ultimate decisions regarding the Honors program, each spoke of its unique benefit.
Patrick Ross ’15, an Honors theater major, appreciates the theater department’s support of its Honors majors. This support has allowed him to form connections with Philadelphia artists and to bring in professional artists who will help him to stage his playwriting and directing theses. He views these connections as invaluable in a discipline in which networking is the key to finding a post-graduation job.
Julia Murphy ’15, an Honors Chemistry major who has done research with a Swarthmore professor for the past two summers, has also found the Honors experience rewarding.
“I’m just excited to talk to experts in the field about something that they’re passionate about and I’m passionate about in an academic setting,” she said.
Rehana Omardeen ’15, who planned to pursue an Honors major in linguistics, looked forward to discussing her thesis with an expert in the field. For Laurie Sellars ’15 and Jason Heo ’15, the Honors program provided the possibility of taking seminars in the political science and economics departments that would be inaccessible to them as course majors.
Despite recognizing the opportunities provided by the Honors program, however, Omardeen, Sellars and Heo all recently decided to pursue course majors.
Just as each Swattie has a slightly different logic for choosing the Honors program, each choosing to abandon the program has a slightly different rationale. However, there was a common thread between interviewees: “The single most important reason that [graduating seniors] list for not going into Honors is the stress,” Williamson said.
Heo said that when he declared an Honors major, the prospect of Honors examinations “was definitely exciting but appropriately nerve-racking.”
Ross, who does plan to continue with Honors, also noted, “The stress is so enormous. Most people think about dropping at some point.”
Nearly every other student interviewed also mentioned the association between the Honors program examinations and high levels of stress.
Stephenson specifically noted the inherent stress of being examined by previously unknown outside academics. In addition, he also noted the high intensity of the end of the spring semester for Honors majors.
“It is odd that we ask our Honors students to go through both written Honors exams and whatever final assignments that they have in their courses that they’re taking in the spring semester of their senior year that aren’t part of their Honors preparations at the same times,” he said. “That does seem unusually stress-inducing and I’ve been wondering if there’s anything we can do about that.”
For many seniors, the stressful nature of the Honors program increased significantly upon last spring’s announcement of the schedule change for the coming year. This controversial proposed change would allow seniors to graduate one week earlier by cutting out four days of study time for Honors majors and eliminating three days of senior week.
“One thing that seems fairly clear to me is that decreasing the number of days that students have to take those exams, to prepare for those exams, is going to increase the stress,” Williamson said.
While only two students who dropped Honors over the summer cited the schedule change as a significant factor in their decision, students agreed across the board with Williamson’s analysis.
“When you have three days to study for your final exams and your Honors exams, I just didn’t think that I would be well enough prepared.” said Alexis Leanza ’15. “And that’s when I really started thinking about dropping it. There were always the doubts in back of my mind … but I was pretty set on it [before the schedule change].”
She ultimately chose to drop her Honors major.
“The schedule change was the final nail in the coffin,” Sellars said. “It reaffirmed everything and erased any doubts that I’d had about no longer doing Honors.”
Heo said that the schedule change “definitely made it easier to drop, considering how difficult it would have been to prepare adequately.”
Omardeen agreed, and said that while she had previously been considering dropping Honors, “the new schedule change pushed [her] over the edge.”
“I didn’t feel like the school was honoring the Honors program or us by not giving us enough time,” said Amie Chou ’15, who also elected to drop Honors. “They didn’t really take us into account or communicate well.”
Both Stephenson and Williamson noted that they were aware of student frustration with the schedule change and emphasized that no final decision had been made. According to Williamson, the earliest they can make a decision is a week from Friday.
Leanza said that she would consider re-adding Honors if the schedule reverted to its previous iteration. However, she noted that “it is more stress regardless of the schedule and the amount of time have to study for it.”
For others, their decision to pursue Honors didn’t hinge as completely on concerns about a hectic end to their Swarthmore experience.
“I wasn’t coming at it from a standpoint about too much work, because I clearly loved the classes. I just wanted a different kind of engagement for my last year here,” Sellars said. “I just really wanted to be able to take the art history course I had envisioned taking in college or take a religion class and I felt like if I pursued Honors, I wouldn’t have as much freedom to do those things.”
The lack of flexibility in the Honors program also factored into Chou’s decision to pursue a course major. “If [Honors] had fit in naturally for me, I would have been more inclined to pursue it. I don’t like fitting my schedule and my interests around Honors.”
“I have a lot of priorities that aren’t academic that I want to focus on,” Chou added, mentioning the importance of her friendships and thinking about post-graduation plans. “Fifty years from now … would Honors matter? What am I going to wish I had done more of? Not academics.”