A common perception of any honors program is that it’s an exclusive group of privileged students from elite high schools with high GPAs and stellar test scores.
But that’s not the reality of the Honors College at Oregon State. It never has been. What the Honors College is about, says Dean Toni Doolen, is much broader and more inclusive.
“For us, it’s how do we include a wide swath of students at OSU, who have this amazing capacity and potential, and help them navigate the university, to be able to fully utilize that potential,” she says.
Inclusive excellence is foundational
With its second strategic plan, the Honors College is focused on access, inclusion and impact. Created in 2020 with input from students and faculty, along with partners who provided a valuable external perspective, the strategic plan sets out priorities and specific, measurable goals to be achieved by 2025.
Doolen says the Honors College 2020-25 Strategic Plan was informed by Oregon State’s Strategic Plan 4.0 as well as the university’s first Diversity Strategic Plan. It wasn’t hard to find alignment and make connections to broader university goals and values, particularly the emphasis on inclusive excellence.
Access has long been a priority for the Honors College. This is reflected in its holistic admissions process and differential tuition scholarships, which help cover the additional cost of Honors College enrollment for some students who have financial need. Since last year, the Honors College Student Leadership Circle, a group of current students who advise college leadership, has focused on diversity, equity and inclusion challenges in the honors community. A subgroup of the leadership circle is writing a new inclusive excellence plan for the Honors College that will supplement the 2020-25 Strategic Plan.
“This is more than just a conversation around diversity,” Doolen says. “It’s really a conversation around social justice, equity, inclusivity and belonging. And it’s coming from the students, so that’s super powerful.”
Another Student Leadership Circle subgroup is working with Associate Dean Susan Rodgers to develop a new learning outcome. “Students are hungry for an Honors College learning outcome that wrestles with what their role and the college’s role is around social justice, equity and inclusivity,” Doolen says. This new learning outcome will define how — from both curriculum and programmatic perspectives — every honors student can develop the capacity to consider these issues in meaningful ways.
Telling prospective students, “You belong here”
Growth had been part of the first Honors College strategic plan, and with 1,549 students this fall term, the Honors College is well on its way to enrolling 7% of all Oregon State undergraduates. That percentage, however, is not evenly distributed across all populations. Doolen says more work is being done to recruit students from colleges that are underrepresented in honors, as well as current Oregon State students and transfers from community colleges and other schools.
“You belong here. The Honors College will be a valuable experience for you.”
High school students using the Common App to apply to Oregon State can apply to the Honors College at the same time, but many opt out, even when they meet the GPA minimum. Doolen identifies these prospects as the college’s toughest challenge, and they share some common demographics: students from underserved and underrepresented populations and Pell Grant-eligible and first-generation students.
“For those students, even though the Honors College could be a way to enhance and transform their experience at OSU, they don’t apply, and they absolutely would be accepted,” Doolen says. She adds that the college has some anecdotal understanding for why these students don’t see themselves in honors. The next step is determining how to reach those students and tell them, “You belong here. The Honors College will be a valuable experience for you.”
The Honors College works with Oregon State recruiting staff to help encourage underrepresented students to apply. University recruiters also connect prospects with Honors College student ambassadors, some of whom are bilingual, to answer questions and explain the honors essay. Doolen says the college looks for high schools where there are underserved populations, especially where counselors have to focus on getting students to graduate and don’t have the bandwidth to assist students who have the potential to do well in honors. During the pandemic, the Honors College introduced virtual visits for prospective students and found they expanded its ability to interact with hard-to-reach populations. Doolen says those remote sessions will continue moving forward.
Honors in 2025: more capacity, greater impact
A year into the strategic plan, Doolen says the Honors College has made measurable progress on multiple goals. That includes fundraising, which is focused on scholarships and other financial support to ensure qualified students have access to the Honors College. The college is also making progress toward creating a more inclusive student community by building its population of diverse students and students representing all academic colleges at OSU.
Doolen also sees progress toward greater impact through the role of the Honors College as an incubator of ideas and an innovator in higher education. This includes hosting cross-disciplinary programs that take new approaches to curriculum and student support. Many of these programs, like engineering and design for society, are open to all students at Oregon State.
Among its values, the Honors College believes “this journey takes you further.” With its second strategic plan underway, the Honors College is implementing that value — and redefining what an honors education can and should be.
Values, priorities and goals: Read all about them.
You can download the Honors College 2020-25 Strategic Plan, which outlines the college’s values, mission, strategic priorities and goals, at honors.oregonstate.edu.