The Honors College is proving that exclusivity doesn’t produce excellence, inclusion does.
When Oregon State University was established in 1868, higher education was a privilege only for the well-to-do. At the time, the land grant mission of education for all people was a revolutionary concept.
More than 150 years later, that mission of access, along with a stronger commitment to equity and inclusion, is guiding the Honors College, removing unnecessary barriers and proactively recruiting and supporting students who might otherwise never apply.
“What our students have in common ─ more than great grades or test scores ─ is a commitment to getting as much as possible out of their college experience.”
“We have so many students who, at one time, felt like they weren’t ‘Honors College material,’” says Associate Dean Tara Williams. “But the truth is, there is no such thing as a typical honors student. What our students have in common ─ more than great grades or test scores ─ is a commitment to getting as much as possible out of their college experience.”
Esther Vega definitely has. Admitted on the strength of her application and a solid high school GPA, she discovered an affinity for engineering through her own classes and classes her friends in the Honors College residence hall were taking. She then applied engineering principles of optimization and efficiency for her honors thesis, examining relationships between teachers and Latinx parents in K-12 schools.
Selection criteria still includes elements such as cumulative high school GPA and SAT or ACT scores. However, the application essay is critical to understanding an applicant as a complete person, Williams says.
“We use the essay as a place for prospective students to show us strengths that might not be apparent from their transcripts, or even from their extracurricular activities. It’s our most direct insight into the way they think.”
But requiring students to demonstrate that they are original, analytical thinkers isn’t just about asking them to prove they can succeed in a rigorous academic environment. It also gives the Honors College an opportunity to select the students they believe have the greatest capacity to benefit from this environment and, ultimately, become change-makers down the line. Mohammed Shakibnia has examined critical race theory and social justice issues in his coursework, honors thesis and through a research internship, all experiences that will prepare him for his intended career as an immigration lawyer.
“The challenges the world is facing today cannot possibly be solved by a single approach or a single worldview,” Williams says. “We need students from different disciplines and diverse backgrounds who can come together to collaborate and innovate effectively.” As Honors College Dean Toni Doolen puts it, “We need to develop a diverse academic community that mirrors the one that our students will eventually be working and living in.”
A great deal of time and energy has gone into developing an admissions process that seeks to understand a student’s potential. A similar level of thought has gone into addressing the financial challenge some Honors College students face.
As in some other academic programs at Oregon State, the Honors College charges differential tuition, an additional $500 per term that enables the college to provide intimate seminar-style classes, individualized academic advising and support in completing an undergraduate thesis. Based on discussions with students, the Honors College established a differential tuition scholarship, with the application and selection criteria designed by a small group of students to allow for a more personalized look at a student’s financial situation.
“The FAFSA doesn’t tell the whole story,” Doolen says. “Our application gives students the freedom to explain nuances like family dynamics, personal financial commitments, whether siblings will be attending college down the line. Any student who has the qualifications to be a part of the Honors College shouldn’t be denied the opportunity.”
“Any student who has the qualifications to be a part of the Honors College shouldn’t be denied the opportunity.”
Helping to close the gap for students that otherwise would be unable to participate is just one of the ways the Honors College is putting a welcoming community first. Scholarships have made the honors experience possible for Vega, Shakibnia and many others.
“We want all our students to feel like they are completely safe, that their worldview will be respected, that they fit in and that they’re adding value,” explains Doolen. “What we hear a lot from prospective students when they visit campus is ‘I’ve found my people.’ So for students who really are thrilled about higher ed as the place to expand their learning, we’re the place for you.”