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Honors Living-Learning Community Increases Higher-Ed Access, Redefines 'Honors'

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What can colleges and universities do to better educate students prepared to take on the world’s most pressing, seemingly intractable problems: poverty, stagnant socioeconomic mobility, discrimination, scientific illiteracy, health disparities, and the range of technical barriers that stymie quality of life improvements for so many of the world’s people?

Solving complex problems like these requires innovative approaches most likely to come from groups of people from diverse backgrounds—people who bring a broad range of life experiences and forms of knowledge to the table. Yet college admissions offices continue to lean on traditional ways of finding talent that over-rely on narrow criteria, often screening out students who not only have what it takes to thrive in college, but who would bring with them precisely the kinds of diverse perspectives needed to change the game in collective public problem solving.

What can higher education do to identify and nurture that kind of talent pool? What if colleges expanded admissions criteria beyond indicators such as standardized test scores and GPAs—which even the College Board’s own research shows to paint only an incomplete picture of college readiness—and employed new means to see the true potential of all students? What would it look like if colleges prided themselves not on exclusivity, but on access and inclusion?

Answer: Expanded educational opportunities for diverse groups of talented students in the form of the Honors Living-Learning Community (HLLC) at Rutgers University–Newark (RU-N).

Read Students, faculty voice excitement for the Honors Living-Learning Community

“The Honors Living-Learning Community is exploring bold innovations in how we at RU-N—and at colleges and universities more generally—identify talent and set new expectations for students from Greater Newark and across urban America to thrive in college,” says RU-N Chancellor Nancy Cantor. “This is an honors community in the deepest meaning of the term: one in which we honor the potential evident in a wide array of talents and skills including leadership, innovation, and citizenship, and strengthening the legacy of RU-N as a seeder of opportunity and excellence.”

The HLLC has been co-led and co-developed by Shirley M. Collado, RU-N’s executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer, and Sherri-Ann Butterfield, senior adviser to the chancellor and senior associate dean of Faculty of Arts & Sciences. They envisioned an honors initiative that challenged traditional frameworks for “honors” and merit and that emphasized college access and success through a cohort model in which students live and learn together to become citizens with agency in their communities. With a focus on students from Newark and Greater Newark, the HLLC is one of several RU-N strategic initiatives to support the Newark City of Learning Collaborative’s goal of increasing the percentage of Newark residents with postsecondary education from 17 percent to 25 percent by 2025.

“HLLC provides a space that celebrates the multiple identities and talents of students who are engaged citizens and problem solvers, and recognizes that these are honors students,” said Collado. “If the term ‘honors’ continues to be reserved for a narrow pool of students who fit certain academic criteria, we are failing to acknowledge the merit of the myriad students whose contributions are critical to our society.”

The HLLC is off to an incredibly strong start in its first year.  “The HLLC increases access to higher education for academically promising, talented, and civic-minded young people who may be missed by relying solely on academic indicators,” said Marta Esquilin, the inaugural associate dean of the HLLC. “Unfortunately, access to high-quality education within the United States has not been available equally to all. First-generation students, low-income students, and a variety of other student populations often face real structural barriers to college admission and degree completion.”

The HLLC is committed to eradicating those barriers for students and providing them with the tools to succeed, Esquilin said. Esquilin asserted that while some traditional academic measurements may be helpful, they do not give us the full sense of a student’s talent and promise.  The HLLC favors a robust admissions rubric to holistically assess a student’s ability to thrive in college, and positively contribute to the greater good.

Esquilin recently led interviews for HLLC applicants in which students participated in team activities designed to assess traits associated with student success, including problem-solving skills, leadership ability, and interpersonal skills.

As an intentional residential community focused on “Local Citizenship in a Global World,” the HLLC was designed to cultivate a collaborative environment in which students have the resources needed to persist and thrive in college. A primary example of such support is the residential scholarship awarded to all HLLC students, in addition to supplementary assistance for tuition and school fees. It’s the kind of assistance that allows students to pursue degrees that they may have sacrificed to support their households.

In fall 2016, HLLC’s inaugural cohort of 30 students began its coursework at RU-N with a curriculum centered on themes of social justice.

Recently, the HLLC admitted students for next year’s cohort of 60 undergraduates. Each year, the cohorts will grow until the HLLC has upwards of 500 students. These students will reside in a state-of-the-art facility with dining, recreational, and academic spaces that is expected to open in 2018.

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Photo 1: Daniel Hernandez reads the strategic plan at an HLLC orientation/ Credit: Shelley Kusnetz

Photo 2: Shirley Collado (left), executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer at RU-N, and Marta Esquilin (right), associate dean of the HLLC/ Credit: Shelley Kusnetz