Honors Program Enrollment Up for Class of 2019

The number of seniors doing an honors major is up by 34 students this year contrary to rumors of declining enrollment in the program. While the number of students involved in the Honors Program varies by department, the data show that around 20 percent of the senior class graduated with Honors each year for the past five years. According to Director of the Honors Program Grace Ledbetter, the program has been working to change its perception by the student body.

Honors is a college-wide program which involves in-depth study of a few topics, usually in the form of four two-credit seminars, and the external examination by members of the field outside of the college. Students who graduate from the program are awarded either Honors, High Honors, or Highest Honors written on their diploma.

While between 18.9 percent and 23.5 percent of each graduating class received Honors diplomas in the last five years, there still exists a view among students that the program is decreasing in size.

“During the Honors meeting this year, I believe that they said the enrollment in the Honors program has decreased over time,” said Honors psychology student Emma Kassan.

Chair of the History Department Timothy Burke, who is also Co-Chair of the Aydelotte Foundation, an organization that researches liberal arts education programs, mentioned that it was difficult to separate honors seminar enrollment trends from enrollment trends in the honors program in general.

“We have seen that it’s a little harder to maintain the range of seminars that we’ve had in the past,” Burke said, “but we still have a pretty healthy number of students involved in our program.”

Though 30.5 percent of current seniors (124 students out of a class of 406) are set to graduate with Honors compared with 21.3 percent of the class of 2018 at this time last year (89 out of 418), the proportion of Honors to course majors varies dramatically by department. For example, the number of Honors majors in political science ranges from 20-24, while the number of Honors majors in computer science ranges from 0-1. This is despite the fact that 70 students graduated with degrees in Computer Science last year compared with 44 in Political Science.

Alex Jin ’19, an Honors history major, described the variation by department in his own experience. He mentioned that there was a significant difference in student interest from class to class and from discipline to discipline.

“I had eight people in my first [Honors seminar], five people in my second one,” said Jin. “I know all my Poli-Sci friends have maxed out seminars at 12. It just seems very different across the disciplines.”

Burke described these differences as a product of the history of Swarthmore College as an institution. According to Burke, the readings and exams that students prepared as part of the Honors Program started out as interdisciplinary and interdepartmental. At some time in the 1960s, the college’s departments became autonomous and it was up to each department whether they wanted to invest themselves in the program.

“Departments here have very strong autonomy over their own majors, their own disciplines, and individual faculty within departments have very strong autonomy over their classes,” said Burke. “What that means in effect is that each department makes decisions for itself about Honors. Are we gonna be very invested in it, or minimally invested in it? Is it an important system to us as a department, or is it not?”

Professor Ledbetter also mentioned that the Computer Science and Engineering Departments, two of the only Departments with almost zero participation on the program, have special circumstances. The Department of Computer Science in recent years has undergone a staffing struggle, said Burke, leaving them unable to cope with the number of students interested in the program.

“They feel they can’t create a separate instrument for Honors that gives the program a privileged place within the sequential curriculum at the moment,” Burke said. “[That] doesn’t necessarily mean that they oppose it.”

Ledbetter attributed the lack of Honors students in Engineering to the existing system for outside assessment involving a culminating project and presentation.

“Part of what the Honors program does for all of the departments here, is we get assessed, our teaching, our syllabi, all of that by our colleagues in these other universities and colleges,” said Ledbetter. “Engineering already has that in place, they don’t necessarily need it.”

According the Ledbetter, the notion of Honors as a humanities driven program is another common misconception.

“If you look at the number of preparations for the last few years, the largest number of preparations are in social sciences, the second largest number are NSE, and the smallest number is in humanities,” Ledbetter said. “[…] It has not been for quite a long time anything like a humanities driven program. But a lot of people think it is, I think most faculty think it is.”

Jin also felt that the Honors program could be applicable across disciplines.

“I don’t think discipline changes the integrity of the program,” said Jin. “The idea of the program is to have these in-depth studies in whatever way shape or form […] I think those are the central themes so as long as you keep those, it’s not much of a change.”

Conversations with faculty members significantly influence sophomores’ decisions to pursue Honors, according to Professor Ledbetter. In the spirit of better communication between the faculty and student body, the Honors program came out with a new brochure last year in an attempt to clarify its mission and make the program more broadly appealing said Ledbetter.

“We are trying to emphasize that it’s not a program for people who want to go into academics,” said Ledbetter. “It’s something that builds confidence and leadership skills. It’s just an educational opportunity that everyone can benefit from.”

The program faces another challenge communicating: when seniors who have graduated don’t necessarily relay the benefits of the program to the underclassmen, according to Burke.

“You don’t see the students after they’ve finished it,” said Ledbetter. “They really love taking the oral exams, which doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but in retrospect, they feel like they’ve accomplished more than they ever thought they could accomplish.”.

Students who do hear about the program hear positive feedback.

“Being able to meet an external examiner and show off what you know is probably the best part of the experience from what I’ve heard,” said Jin.

According to Ledbetter, the Honors Program had an event last month which allowed seniors to speak retrospectively about their experience with the program. Whether or not these efforts to put common misconceptions to bed and change the student body’s perception of the Honors Program have been effective, the data indicate a strong program with no trend towards decline.

Featured image courtesy of Karin Nakano

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