College Honors: Anything More Than a Name?

By Leo Rector

When I first started applying to colleges during my senior year of high school, my parents stressed the importance of applying to each school’s honors program as well, especially if I wanted to attend a big public school. They told me about how they received priority enrollment, access to an exclusive study hall, the best professors in regular courses, and the ability to take honors-level coursework. Imagine my delight when I learned that not only was I admitted into the school of my dreams, UCLA, but I also made it into the college honors program. However, it wasn’t long before I realized that my perceptions of the honors program were completely different from reality.

There are actually three different kinds of honors at UCLA. There is college honors, which requires students to take a certain amount of honors units in addition to maintaining a 3.5 GPA. Departmental honors varies, but usually requires at least a 3.5 GPA for a certain amount of upper division courses, completion of requisite coursework with an A- or higher, and an overall GPA of 3.5. Of course there is latin honors as well, which requires graduation with GPAs ranging from 3.8 to 3.9. And that’s just for cum laude. 

College honors is objectively the easiest honors recognition to achieve at UCLA. Perhaps the extra work is a little annoying, but many of the honors courses cover GE requirements and aren’t much harder than the regular GE courses. As such, the relatively low bar set by college honors leads to two eventualities that hurt the program. First, the program will become overpopulated by a multitude of overqualified students who easily maintain the requisite coursework and GPA requirements. Second, the name ‘honors’ loses prestige because it’s relatively easy to be a college honors student. Honor implies a degree of excellence that separates a few from the rest. In the current day and age of grade inflation, a 3.5 GPA, while nothing to scoff at, is simply not excellent at this school. 

What about the benefits of being in college honors? These have probably been impacted the most by the program’s mediocre standards. There was a time when college honors students received priority enrollment, but that practice ended in Fall 2009 after almost 8,300 undergraduates had priority enrollment during the previous winter quarter (about a third of the entire university population). There are no special facilities for college honors students at UCLA, and honors students do not get the best professors for their regular classes. In the end, there are really only three benefits to being in college honors, and even these come with caveats. 

When a college honors student graduates, they are eligible to pay for a yellow fourragère to add to their cap. Of course, their degree also specifies that they were a college honors student. While the title might sound prestigious, a google search by a potential graduate school or employer will reveal the lackluster requirements one had to meet to earn it. Paying for the fourragère offers nothing more than a not-so-humble flex on one’s fellow students; that little yellow cord is useful for exactly one day. 

Seemingly useful, the access to honors counselors that often have reduced wait times compared to the regular counselors sounds better than it actually is. Counseling at UCLA is less than adequate to begin with, as a 15 minute meeting with a person who knows nothing about you is too short and unpersonalized to effectively provide academic advice. UCLA counselors are here to respond to large problems that might arise, like switching majors, dropping classes, or extending deadlines. A common misconception is that they also give basic university advice like which classes one should take, but this is simply not the case. When something goes wrong, it is helpful to be able to meet with someone trained to offer solutions as soon as possible. But how many times is the average student going to have a problem significant enough to warrant a counselor’s help? As a college honors student myself, I have had multiple meetings with honors counselors, and they are minimally helpful with anything short of a full-blown academic crisis. They understand that anything less than that can probably be accomplished with some time and effort on the part of the student. A pragmatic and necessary approach at such a large institution, it is nevertheless difficult to count lower counseling wait times as a benefit when it is only useful a handful of times in the average academic career.

Finally, there is the college honors coursework, the pillar of a true honors program. Even here, the program is bolstered by the honors collegium and not much else. Honors contracts and honors seminars offer students the opportunity to interact with their professors in smaller groups and explore content that is not covered in the normal curriculum. Both of these opportunities are useful for classes one might be interested in, but neither are essential to having an engaging academic experience at UCLA. PLATO society discussion groups and independent study courses fall into a similar category of interesting but unnecessary add-ons. College of University Teaching Fellows (CUTF) seminars are useful in completing honors unit requirements, but only enroll 25 students per seminar. The best and most popular honors coursework, the honors collegium courses, are taught by some of the most talented professors at UCLA and receive the highest reviews. It’s no small wonder that these classes are almost impossible to enroll in unless one emails the professor two months before enrollment, practically at the start of the prior quarter. Even then, honors collegium courses are so competitive that professors can pick and choose which students they feel are most deserving of being in their class, a decision that often excludes simple metrics like GPA. The students lucky enough to enroll enjoy an incredibly challenging and stimulating academic endeavour. The ones that don’t are left scrambling for other options to fulfill the honors requirements. 

At first, I thought I had a biased perspective of the college honors program, as a freshman struggling to satisfy the unit requirement because every cluster had been filled by the time my enrollment pass rolled around. However, the more I talk with fellow college honors students, the more I realize that our feedback is the same; the program offers minimal benefit in exchange for minimal extra work. Perhaps that fourragère really is worth it on graduation day. Or perhaps the college honors program has been reduced to nothing more than a title on one’s degree, a sad justification for the existence of any academic program at the number one public university in America.

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