Liberal Learning for Transfer and Beyond: The Honors Program at Mt. San Antonio College
With nearly 60,000 students, Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) is one of the largest community colleges in California. The institution has to serve a diverse range of student needs, including transfer to four-year institutions. The honors program at Mt. SAC offers a rigorous pathway for motivated, transfer-bound students to take charge of their own education.
In High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them and Why They Matter, George Kuh explains that certain educational practices are particularly effective at driving student learning because they "demand that students devote considerable time and effort to purposeful tasks" and "deepen students' investment in the activity as well as their commitment to their academic program and the college." Such practices are central to many honors programs, in which students attend small, seminar-style classes that incorporate undergraduate research, writing-intensive assignments, service-learning, and high levels of student-faculty interaction.
"I think it gives both faculty and students a different sense of what they're doing here," says Carolyn Kuykendall, director of the honors program at Mt. SAC. "It's rewarding to faculty members to teach motivated students and it's rewarding to students to be treated as someone who can think."
The honors program at Mt. SAC is not a separate course pathway within the college, but a series of advanced, "enriched" courses, which fulfill the same requirements as comparable non-honors courses, but with lower enrollments limited to honors students. The program, which began in 1994, currently enrolls about 1,100 students. To be eligible, students must have a high school GPA of 3.5, or a college GPA of 3.2, a letter of recommendation from a Mt. SAC faculty member, and be prepared for English 1A, a transferable college composition course. Students must also write an essay as part of their application.
Students who complete a total of thirty credits, including fifteen credits from honors courses, with a cumulative GPA of 3.2 are designated honors scholars. One important benefit for students with this designation is increased transfer opportunities to four-year institutions. "Our students almost universally are planning to transfer, and most are planning to go to school beyond the bachelor's degree," Kuykendall says. Honors students are eligible for a number of transfer agreements with the University of California (UC) and California State University systems, including priority for admission to UCLA's College of Letters and Sciences and guaranteed admission to UC Irvine for students who complete six honors courses with a GPA of 3.7 or higher. The honors program also has transfer agreements with a number of private institutions in the area, but many students go on to schools all over the country, including Ivy League universities.
A recent survey conducted over four years found 80 percent of Mt. SAC honors students transferred to a four-year institution. Tracking the remaining 20 percent is more difficult, though. "We know some that went back into the workforce; we had a few who got called up for the military," Kuykendall says. "We'll never have 100 percent transfer." Some of those students do eventually transfer to four-year institutions, she says, but because available data only documents the first transfer for each student, students who transfer to another community college, or return to Mt. SAC after an extended absence, aren't accounted for in the tracking data.
The flip side of transfer is that rigorous requirements lead some students who are eligible for the honors program to choose not to participate. The program sometimes struggles to provide enough honors courses in the STEM fields, especially engineering, which has many prerequisites and so leaves students with little time to complete honors courses that don't satisfy their major transfer requirements. Other qualified students elect not to enroll because they worry that honors courses will be too difficult, Kuykendall says.
Still, the honors program prides itself on being open to all students who wish to participate. Even students who enter Mt. SAC with some developmental needs can pursue the honors designation. Students who meet most requirements but aren't prepared for college composition may still be admitted, provided they take a writing workshop or summer course to bring them up to speed. While the GPA requirement is firmer, a 3.2 GPA is not an excessively high barrier, says Carol Impara, faculty coordinator for the program, and even students who don't meet this requirement may be admitted with the strong recommendation of a faculty member or dean. "There's often resistance to honors programs because they're seen as elite," Kuykendall says. "Our program is not elite. We're very diverse: socially, economically, ethnically, male and female, any way you look at it."
Honors courses are set apart from other courses by their low enrollment caps—twenty students, as opposed to thirty or thirty-five for other transfer courses—and an enrichment component that is determined by the individual faculty member teaching the course. High enrollments and the tight budgets of the last few years have made it difficult to offer separate courses with low enrollments. Some honors courses now enroll a "stacked" class—a mix of honors and regular enrollment students. Honors students may be required to complete additional assignments, or to they may present some of the class material and serve as discussion leaders. As much as possible, though, Mt. SAC tries to limit these courses to twenty students so they can be conducted seminar style, with maximum student-faculty interaction.
Instructors have some latitude to design an honors enrichment component that is most appropriate for their discipline, Impara says, and the faculty have collectively developed a variety of approaches. Some instructors have incorporated experiential learning components such as service learning and field trips. Many incorporate undergraduate research, including Impara, who teaches an honors nutrition course. Impara emphasizes the scientific grounding of nutrition in all her classes, and in her honors sections students must complete a research project using only refereed science and nutrition journals. The lengthy assignment is a way of focusing on writing and critical thinking skills, she says, but it also introduces students to a new genre of statistics-heavy reading. Many students who conduct research for honors courses present their findings at conferences.
Liesel Reinhart, who has been teaching in the honors program for fifteen years, continues to adjust and adapt her honors public speaking course with input from the students. "At the end of the semester, as we review all the assignments we did, I'll ask my students to help refine those assignments based on their experiences," she says. "Over time my course has been really customized by my students. When I looked back, I realized this course is almost entirely shaped by students at this point."
One of these student-influenced activities is a semester-long, team-based extra credit competition. The teams compete in ten different challenges—"they're essentially activity quizzes"—to earn points over the course of the semester. Challenges might call for students to debate each other, to teach something, or to produce a piece of writing. The stakes are high—all members of the winning team receive an A for the course. "It sounds pretty controversial," Reinhart admits. "But by being in the challenge and winning it, everyone in that group already has an A. I think maybe twice a student has gone from a B to an A, because to win the challenge you have to be so on top of all the material."
And the intensity of the challenge drives learning throughout the class. "Within a week they're meeting outside of class without me telling them, coaching each other and bringing up whoever might be falling behind on their own. Some of the challenges require good research, attentive readers, good writers, or good speakers, so naturally over the course of the semester each person starts to show their skills and is prized for something."
This is a common thread in all Reinhart's enrichment activities—they are designed to make students take control of the course and stay engaged between class meetings. Given limited class time and students' competing priorities outside of academics, she tries to ensure students are actively engaged throughout the course and take the initiative to meet and work with each other outside of class.
A Community of Support
Another program benefit is access to the Honors Center, where students can study together or meet with a counselor or academic advisor to discuss academic goals and make sure they are on track for degree completion and transfer. The honors advisors have a case load of about 750 students—compared with almost 2,000 for regular academic advisors—so they can meet with students more frequently and get to know them better. Honors students are required to meet with an advisor or counselor at least once a semester, and have the option of meeting once a week, schedules permitting.
In addition, students can meet with other honors faculty and staff more informally at the center, where they might seek assistance with a transfer application or practice a presentation for a research conference. This is one of the biggest benefits of the honors center: it provides a place for students to go where they know they will see familiar, friendly faces. This is especially important right now, Impara says, with the shortage of classes available at California community colleges and the increased financial burdens many students carry. "I think the fact that students have real live people they can turn to is very comforting and motivating—it helps them continue on this path."
Kuykendall agrees—it's important to stay in contact with students and remind them of what they stand to gain from completing the program. "We can say, 'you may have flunked out of high school, but you can transfer to UC Irvine with a $3,000 scholarship if you do these things'," she says. "These are heady things we can tell our students. You can come from an immigrant family, and not speak English, and be in my program, complete it, and you can get into UCLA—that's exciting."