Note: This article was reprinted from the New York Times on May 22, 2018

Tyreek works full-time in the sanitation department while co-parenting his 10-year-old son. Ahjoni, a cancer survivor, was enduring a chemotherapy regimen. Mohammad was kicked out of prep school, then suspended for 100 days from high school for, among other things, selling chocolate to his classmates. Emanuel was serving a three-year sentence for armed robbery when a jury tossed out his conviction.

These are not the profiles of students who get admitted to a classic university-run honors college. Instead, they are enrolled at the Honors Living-Learning Community of Rutgers University-Newark, an institution where they and others with similarly fraught life stories are pushing the boundaries of what defines an honors college by emphasizing grit in overcoming life’s difficulties, rather than grades.

Across the United States, the unending drive for prestige has generated an explosion in the number of honors colleges. Nearly 900 schools, almost all of them public universities and community colleges, belong to the National Collegiate Honors Council. Among them, it is usually a coup for an institution to snare applicants whose top-of-the-class high-school records and SAT scores would assure them a place at a renowned private university. The bait is the honors college, which promises the intimate feel of a small college within an outsized state school.