reward programs

It occurred to me that I promised to write about the UF Honors Program and my thoughts about honors education from time to time, and I've not yet delivered on that.  So, without further adieu... I had dinner with about a dozen honors students last week as part of the new monthly program I started, Dine and Chat. (aside:  this needs a new and better name.  I didn't want to steal from anyone else and go with something like "Food for Thought".  Anyway, if you have a suggestion, I'd love to hear it.)  The premise is that a faculty member (in this case, me) meets with a small group of students to share a meal and discuss some topic of the prof's choosing.  I went first because it was easy to organize myself, and also because I wanted to get some quality, detailed feedback from current students about the State Of The Honors Program.  Among the topics we discussed were small classes (like), Hume Hall (like), lack of sufficient numbers of honors courses (dislike), and many others.  We went simple and had pizza in the classroom next to the Honors office; two hours later we finally wrapped up.

Here's the fundamental problem I face:  the University of Florida is a very good university.  The average SAT for incoming freshmen this year is something like 1960 (this means little to people of my generation for whom 1600 was perfect, but it translates to approximately 1290 under the old system).  That's the average.  The minimum score to be invited to apply to the Honors Program is 2070.  That's a pretty small difference.  Like, a you-didn't-get-enough-sleep-or-had-a-mild-cold sort of difference.  So the question I put to the students was this:  what should Honors even be at a university like this?  When the gap between "honors" and "non-honors" is so small, what distinguishes the program?

I don't think we came up with a satisfying answer (again, if you have one I'd love to hear it).  I think what it is now is a community of bright, highly motivated students who share some common interests and have the occasional intellectual conversation.  Maybe that's what it should be.  I don't know.

But one student did say something that sort of took me aback:  the Honors Program gets billed to high school students as a "reward program" for being good students.  And I don't think the rewards are intellectual as a rule.  We offer very good specialized advising, help in preparation for prestigious scholarships, priority registration---excellent services all, but not much to push the mental envelope.  So it's like being bumped up to first class:  you've earned enough frequent flier miles (high SAT scores), there's a seat (bed in Hume), and you've expressed interest (you filled out an extra application) so we'll give you the upgrade.

Something about this bothers me.  It should be a challenge to get into an honors program (wherever it is), but more importantly it should be a challenge to complete an honors program.  All those services are nice, and I don't think they should go away, but shouldn't an honors program expect something rather than just provide something?  Shouldn't the goal be to add something to the college experience, something real?

During orientation, I tell students that I hope they are coming to UF and to the Honors Program in particular to become interesting people.  I guess that's what we should help them to do.  Figuring out how is the tricky part.  I'll keep you posted.