The college search was winding down as a group of about 60 high school seniors and their parents packed into the basement lounge of a college dormitory to hear yet another spiel about why they should spend their next four years at this particular campus. It was early April, less than a month before the traditional May 1 deadline when seniors finalize their college plans, and these students, with admissions offers from prestigious private universities such as Brown, Stanford and Duke, had a lot weighing on their minds.
The 20-minute talk was peppered with details about the academic program: small classes taught by top professors, courses that break down the walls between academic disciplines, personal interaction with faculty members. It sounded like a small, elite private college, yet these high school seniors were visiting the University of Maryland at College Park, a large public university with some 25,000 undergraduates.
"We're here," Maynard Mack Jr., an English professor who was then the program's director, told the students and their parents, "to make the big store small."
At least that was true for this group of handpicked students. They were visiting College Park to learn more about Maryland's honors program, which offers essentially a private, liberal arts education to a select group of high-achieving students. Of the more than 22,000 high school seniors who apply to Maryland each year, about 2,100 are invited into the honors program. About 700 ultimately accept the offer.
Mack -- dressed for his part as the program's cheerleader in a black shirt with a small Terrapin mascot on the breast pocket and a red tie littered with yellow turtles -- recounted a story about faceless public universities like Maryland where professors once told students on the first day of class to look to their right and to their left because one of those students would not be there for graduation. "It was obscene," he told the group. "We're still a big school, but the difference is when things go wrong, the honors program is here to help."
The anecdote resonated with John Mathias, then a senior from Frederick with a near-perfect 1570 on the SAT.
He had offers in hand from Notre Dame and Boston College, but he liked what he heard from students at College Park about the honors program's cooperative learning environment. And he was reassured when a professor in another open house session mentioned the philosopher Michel Foucault, whom Mathias had already studied as a high school debater.
"This really seems like a program for me," Mathias said after the open house. "The in-depth discussion, the interesting works, and a lot less structure than other schools. It's an intellectual setting."
And it didn't hurt that he was being offered a full scholarship, as opposed to coming up with $40,000 a year to go to Notre Dame. A few weeks later, Mathias had made his choice: He would attend the University of Maryland.
Maryland is not alone among big public universities in using an honors program as a tool to lure students such as Mathias. The university started its program in 1966, but the current setup dates to the early 1990s, when other public colleges were beginning to boost their own honors enclaves within the larger institutions. In the past decade, membership in the National Collegiate Honors Council has risen more than 50 percent, to some 800 institutions, with the vast majority of them public universities and community colleges, including George Mason, Bowie State and Virginia Tech universities. The hope of the big public institutions is that the small-college feel of an honors program can combat the reputation that state schools often have for impersonal, lecture-style classes, while at the same time drawing a solid core of gifted students who can raise the academic bar for all students on campus.
While every college sets up its honors program differently, almost all of the programs come with perks beyond the small classes and personal attention. Maryland offers some of its honors students a separate dorm complete with a computer lab and an art gallery, along with a packed calendar of lectures and theater and arts performances. At George Mason, honors students are allowed to register for classes before everyone else.
Perhaps the biggest perk, though, is the one that every student gets at a public college, whether they are in the honors program or not: the price. At a time when the average cost of a private-college education is four times that of a public, the fact that honors students at taxpayer-supported public colleges get what seems like a better education than other students strikes some critics of the programs as unfair.
Count Murray Sperber among them. An English professor at Indiana University, Sperber complains that by catering to smart students, public colleges have created a two-tiered education system on their campuses. "Honors programs have helped public colleges conceal the failure of their general undergraduate program," Sperber says. "All the time, energy and money focused on them should instead be put into improving education for all students. That's why we created public colleges."
State-run universities such as Maryland have always prided themselves on being, among other things, the gateway to the middle class for needy and immigrant students who are the first in their family to attend college.
Joe Oppenheimer, a professor of government and politics at Maryland, notes that most of the honors students he teaches come from well-educated, affluent families. Unlike some of his colleagues, he prefers to teach regular students. "You can make a much bigger difference in their life," he says. "They are by far the most exciting people to teach, and few of them get into the honors program."
Leaders of honors programs at Maryland and elsewhere defend the need to segregate honors students. Honors program advocates maintain that because public universities attract a broad range of students, institutions must pay special attention to those on the top of the academic scale -- just like they provide extra help for those on the bottom. Both Maryland and George Mason limit their programs to freshmen and sophomores, so honors students mingle with the rest of the campus during their final two years.
"We want to give the honors students an enriched experience, but we want them to be integrated," says Robert P. Clark, director of George Mason's honors program and a professor of government and politics. "We expect our students to be role models in other classes."
Whether honors students improve the overall academic atmosphere on campus is unclear. But at College Park, where honors students make up 15 percent of this year's freshman class, they certainly have helped contribute to the university's rise in the national rankings. Academically, the honors students are a cut above everyone else. Last fall the typical honors student arrived with SAT scores that ranged from 1330 to 1470 -- more than 150 points higher than the scores of the typical freshman on the College Park campus.
Those high SAT scores come at a cost for the university, however. Nearly three-fourths of this year's honors freshmen received partial or full scholarships from the university, compared with less than 12 percent of the rest of the class. An honors education also costs the university more to provide -- about $500 extra per student annually.
Barbara Thorne, an entomology professor and the honors program's new director, argues that an honors education is worth the higher price, since it helps keep bright Maryland students in state, a goal of lawmakers in recent years. Some 84 percent of this year's honors freshman class is from Maryland, compared with 66 percent for the university overall. The honors program, Thorne says, acts "as a magnet for students who will enrich the state's human resources and propel the university toward even stronger academics, research and prestige."
Anne Colgrove proves Thorne's point. She spurned offers from Duke, Vanderbilt and Carnegie Mellon, all private institutions with six-figure price tags of as much as $128,000 for four years of tuition. By comparison, Maryland costs about $30,000 for four years of tuition, and the school offered her a full scholarship to attend.
"I really didn't want to come to Maryland at all," admits Colgrove, a senior physiology and neurobiology major from Rockville. "It's a half-hour from home, 30 percent of my high school goes here, and it's the home state school. Sure, there was the honors program, but I didn't know how good it was until I got here."
Of all the program's selling points, the one that appeals most to prospective students is the small classes. As at other big public universities, introductory courses at Maryland are huge. It's not uncommon for freshmen to find themselves in classes with 200 or 300 other students in large lecture halls, where the instructor rarely knows their name, and teaches by dishing out facts or formulas as students furiously take notes.
"You're a number, not a person in a regular class," says Azize Sahin, who transferred into the honors program during her freshman year after she took a calculus class with 200 students and a biology class with 300.
"I felt I knew my calc professor pretty well," she says, "but when I asked him for a letter of recommendation, it pretty much was like, 'Azize is a student in my 200-person calculus class. Her grades place her in the top 10 percent of what I consider to be a challenging course. I am sure she would be successful in her future endeavors.'" By comparison, honors seminars are limited to 20 students and emphasize critical thinking. The seminars, which are designed specifically for honors students and open only to them, have the feel of a graduate-school course, not one for students fresh from high school.
Take Lillian Doherty's "Comedy: Ancient and Modern." One day, 19 students sat at a U-shaped arrangement of tables. The discussion in class centered on a homework assignment comparing Menander's Samia, the classic Greek comedy, to the 1967 film "The Graduate."
Doherty, an associate professor of classics, started off the conversation, knowing full well that Samia is a dense, serious work and that "The Graduate" was made well before these students were born. But the students kept the conversation going. Near the end of class, Doherty praised their insights into the play and the film.
Her body language seemed to indicate that class was done for the day, and in many college classrooms, students would have already been packing up to leave. But not here. The students snuck in a few more questions, even as Doherty walked out the door.
While she welcomes the enthusiasm exhibited by the honors students, Doherty says that in some ways it is also what bothers her the most about teaching in the program. The students, she says, are used "to getting more attention" and have "a sense of entitlement" that makes them demand more from faculty members, like answering e-mail messages at all hours or scheduling tests when it is convenient for them.
Those demands may be fine for instructors at the small liberal arts colleges that the honors program strives to emulate. But Doherty and other professors note that the expectations of honors students are often at odds with Maryland's mission as a large public research university, where faculty members are rewarded for their work outside the classroom and what they publish in journals and books, rather than how well they teach or connect with students. "That is the core of the problem with the honors program," Doherty says. "You need to have student-centered teachers, and the university's reward structure doesn't encourage faculty to interact with students."
Of course, Doherty acknowledges, teaching small classes full of smart students makes her job easier in other ways. Honors students, she says, are much better writers compared with non-honors students and can usually be counted on to complete their homework assignments. As a result, teaching honors students is often considered a plum assignment, despite the demands the students can make on their teachers' time.
"Some professors would give their right molar to teach all the time in honors," says Oppenheimer, the politics professor.
John Mathias, who picked Maryland over Notre Dame and Boston College, is finishing his freshman year at College Park and is pleased with his choice.
He says he has found a mentor in Stephen L. Elkin, a government professor, who is advising him on a multi-year honors project about the future of the two major political parties.
With only 20 students in the introductory politics class he took in the fall, Mathias says, he "developed a relationship" with Elkin. Mathias says the same was not true for students who took the non-honors intro course with more than 100 others in the class. "They didn't read as much and had a lot of tests," he says. "We read Friedman, Machiavelli and had three papers and got very deep into different political theories. You can't get as excited about the material without the connection to the professor."
For Mathias, the small-college feeling is complemented by the fact that Maryland is a major university. He has friends outside the honors program and went to almost all the home men's basketball games.
"This is exactly what I was looking for," he says. "It's the best of both worlds."
Jeffrey Selingo is a senior editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education.