There's Power in Honor
by: Dr. Robert A. Sevier
Honors programs and colleges are proliferating for good reason: They're benefiting students and IHE
Currently, there are 3,600 colleges and universities in the United States. At last count, approximately 1,400 of them have honors programs and colleges. This finding brings to light three factors that may surprise you:
First, many of the colleges and universities with honors programs are regional publics or solid second- and third-tier privates. In other words, you don't have to be an Ivy League wanna-be or flagship multiversity to have an honors college. Second, many of these honors colleges/programs—and the students they serve—are doing quite well. Their enrollments are increasing. And third, while the academic motivation for an honors college is obvious, you cannot ignore the marketing implications: Honors programs help generate students, prestige, media attention, and donated dollars. And let's face it—for the most part, there are only four basic tools for enhancing the marketability of academic programs:
- The market-based review of your current majors to determine which of your majors are hot, which are not, and which majors should be added.
- A business approach to the creation of new majors that allows you to address the strategic, economic, and marketing implications of a new major before it is created, rather than after.
- The identification and marketing of your tall poles; the handful of current programs that are of most interest to prospective students.
- The creation and marketing of an effective honors program or college—the basis of our discussion here.
There are a number of solid, student-centered reasons for creating and marketing an honors program.
Honors courses are generally smaller; they allow better students a more personal education. (The University of Georgia, for instance, has a freshman class of some 4,300, but only around 10 percent are accepted into the honors program.) Furthermore, introductory classes in the honors program are far smaller than the regular introductory classes of several hundred students.
Honors programs allow students to work directly with faculty—sometimes the best faculty. This creates powerful opportunities for teaching and learning. In addition, honors students are often given the opportunity to work collaboratively with faculty on joint research projects or even their own research interests. And, an honors college can allow students to customize their education to a greater degree. Students enrolled in honors programs are much more likely to take interdisciplinary courses than are regular students.
Honors colleges can create a powerful residence life experience and allow for greater bonding among students, between students and faculty, and between students and the institution when they include dedicated living opportunities such as an honors dorm. At the new honors college at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, for example, incoming freshman all live in the same building. But the program doesn't stop there: The building also houses the offices of the honors faculty and includes guest living quarters for visiting lecturers.
Students enrolled in honors programs can begin their academic careers by taking a blend of honors and regular courses—unlike students enrolled at highly selective colleges where all programs are challenging. As they become more academically confident, they can take more honors courses. In some cases, they can even transfer from regular housing to honors housing.
Cost remains the same. While the quality of an honors education will likely be better than that of an education offered through regular academic programs, the cost is no greater. This is especially evident in honors programs at public institutions. Robert Sullivan, co-author of Ivy League Programs at State School Prices (Hungry Minds, Inc; 1994), says that students enrolled in honors programs can, in effect, "go to the Ivy League at about half the price." This lesson has not been lost on public colleges. In fact, public colleges are creating honors programs at a faster rate than their private counterparts. Even community colleges are getting in on the act. In 1995, 25 percent of community colleges had honors programs. Four years later, that number had increased to 36 percent.
The prestige factor. The best students who would not glance twice at a merely good school (especially a public one) are taking second and even third glances at honors colleges. Though they probably would not attend the University of Maryland, honors students are enrolled in the Gemstone program, part of the honors experience at that same university. In some cases, the more exclusive honors program has a better brand than the larger university that houses it.
Students are not the only ones who benefit from a well-conceived and executed honors program or college; institutions receive some important benefits as well.
Academic reputation, and prestige. Colleges and universities with strong honors programs typically enroll students that are consistently better prepared academically, and have more expansive academic goals, than students enrolled in regular classes. In fact, there is a growing volume of data that suggests that students enrolled in honors programs at better public and private institutions are academically similar to students enrolled in our nation's best private colleges and universities.
These exceptional students also help a school boost its prestige. When a good but not great college can legitimately say that some of its students were accepted at Harvard or Yale, but chose to attend its own honors program, its credibility and prestige is enhanced. Furthermore, because honors students tend to go on to graduate school at a higher rate, the academic credibility of the institution is enhanced even more. This prestige factor is critically important: Not only are prospective students attracted by prestige and reputation, but label-conscious parents and even high school influencers such as guidance counselors and teachers are, as well.
Top faculty retention. There is evidence that better faculty are more likely to stay at an institution when their teaching duties allow them to work with honors students. Even faculty who prefer research to teaching are more likely to find time to teach and interact with honors students.
Fundraising implications. Students enrolled in honors programs tend to make better alumni. Some donors and foundations are also especially interested in building honors programs.
State funding benefits. Finally, state legislatures—with an eye toward keeping better students in state—are funding honors programs even as they cut other items in the educational budget.
Marketing and Branding
From a marketing and branding perspective, there are a number of keys to a successful honors program or college.
Make sure the creation of an honors program or college is consistent with your mission. In most cases, this will not be difficult. Just as IHEs feel compelled to offer special assistance to students who struggle academically, an increasing number feel compelled to support students who are not challenged by the regular curriculum.
Make sure it is truly an honors program or college. Re-labeling a few courses and creating an international experience does not make an honors program. There are a number of guidelines to help you gauge the level of commitment that is required. One excellent resource—the National Collegiate Honors Council Web site—can be found at www.runet.edu/~nchc/.
Develop a thoughtful brand architecture that allows you to confidently and compellingly brand not only the larger institution, but the honors college or program, as well. This requires a single, unified brand plan and careful brand leadership.
Match a solid honors program with a segmented recruiting strategy that will allow you to identify and target special students and their influencers. This will require research, the ability to customize messages and offers, and careful follow-up.
Make sure the dollars you use to fund the new honors program are not taken from your regular academic programs. An honors college must augment, not compete with, regular programs. While this is not overtly a marketing concern, it could have significant marketing implications if you misallocate funds and are publicly held accountable for doing so.
Honors Programs in the Real World
Dr. Robert Smith, provost/vice president at Slippery Rock University (Slippery Rock, PA) offers this perspective on honors colleges. He says, "We have had superb success in attracting honors students because our program offers more than a refuge from the oversized classes taught by graduate students in the flagship campuses. Our program offers close contact with faculty in both honors and regular courses, special features such as international travel, and the full experience of honors faculty. Our faculty are committed to teaching all students. Consequently, from the initial interview on, students see that your faculty take the time and give the energy to teach."
An honors program or college can offer an IHE significant marketing opportunities, but only if the program is thoughtfully developed, well funded and executed, and truly of value to better students. In most cases, the marketing benefits must be perceived as collateral benefits, not the primary motivation for the program.
Let me give you an example of how this might work for a small college: Recently, I completed a project for a small four-year institution on the West Coast. Historically, this church-related college had served average students—students who would need a little extra support. A year ago, the college decided to pursue a higher-quality student because a) those students are more likely to be full pay, b) there was some donor interest, and c) faculty were clamoring for the chance to teach better students. However, the school did not want to abandon the bread-and-butter students in its primary market.
The solution? Repositioning and expanding the school's honors program. The college had already had some success in honors programming, but the new program was much more comprehensive and well resourced. The institution was able to target a higher-profile student, develop a customized marketing and recruiting strategy for these students and their influencers, and offer more financial aid, especially to those students who were enrolled in one of their tall-pole programs. This kind of segmentation strategy allowed the school to build a brand in the minds and hearts of one audience without being in conflict with the brand it already had developed with another audience. That's the power of a solid and well-marketed honors program.
Robert Sevier is a senior VP of Stamats Communications (www.stamats.com); his upcoming book,
Building a Brand That Matters, is available from Strategy Publishing at www.strategypublishing.com.