An Honors College that Honors Grit

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Chinedu Onyemaobi, left, a member of the Honors Living-Learning Community and another student at the 2018 Rutgers University-Newark commencement.

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.

“Many provosts and presidents see honors colleges as a way to attract students who will raise the school’s average G.P.A. and test scores,” said Naomi Yavneh Klos, a Loyola University New Orleans professor who is president of the honors council. “Equity is too often left out of the conversation.” These students, mostly white and middle-class, receive concierge treatment with sizable scholarships, separate housing, special seminars, faculty mentors, research opportunities and first crack at courses in high demand.

Rutgers University-Newark thinks differently about social justice, and its admissions program has become something of an experiment within the council. For the past 18 years, U.S. News & World Report has ranked it the nation’s most diverse university, and the school has made diversity its calling card. One of three public universities within New Jersey’s Rutgers system, it promotes itself as “fostering excellence at the intersection of academic and civic engagement.”

“This is the talent pool to change the shape of the country, the next generation of change-makers,” Nancy Cantor, the university’s Newark chancellor, told me. Since she became president in 2014, the number of students from Newark has increased by 60 percent. A 2016 initiative guarantees graduates of local high schools and New Jersey community colleges whose families earn less than $60,000 a full-tuition scholarship. Two-thirds of the students earn a bachelor’s degree in six years; according to Washington Monthly, that’s 15 percent higher than schools with similar demographics. And there’s a negligible difference in graduation rates for black, white and Latino students.

The Honors Living-Learning Community is mainly composed of black and Latino students — nearly twice as many as the total of black and Latino undergraduates in the rest of Rutgers-Newark’s programs. Most come from Newark itself and neighboring towns. Forty percent are community-college graduates, 40 percent are the first in their family to go to college, and 75 percent are eligible for federal Pell Grants, which go to needy students. Their high-school grades and SAT scores are lower than the campus average. Few universities would have awarded them scholarships, let alone enrolled them in a hand-tailored academic program. But at Rutgers-Newark they get white-glove treatment because of their potential as leaders.

While academic skill matters in determining who gets selected, the emphasis is on these students’ resiliency, their drive to learn and their passion for social justice. “The process itself highly engages the students even before orientation begins,” John Gunkel, the vice chancellor for academic programs and services, pointed out. “Starting earlier helps these students invest in themselves in a way that offsets the disconnectedness that many institutions struggle against. And everyone who participates in the selection process buys into what happens with the students, creating a real community of student support.”

Every component of the honors program comes straight from the book on how to engage undergraduates generally, and minority students in particular. The students receive scholarships that cover their living expenses as well as tuition. Without this aid, most couldn’t enroll full-time, and evidence shows that part-time students are far less likely to graduate. A substantial number of community college graduates are admitted, which gives 18-year-olds, fresh out of high school, an opportunity to learn from peers with more life experience.

Emmanuel Mervilus, right, tutors a fellow student.CreditAnthony Alvarez/Rutgers.
Emmanuel Mervilus, right, tutors a fellow student. CreditAnthony Alvarez/Rutgers.

Seminars at the honors program range from civil rights to environmental justice. These are high-expectations classes, which demand more reading and writing than undergraduates usually encounter. They are designed to connect what’s happening locally to the wider world. Students in a marketing course, for example, are working for a company that promotes the city’s “Hire. Buy. Live. Newark” initiative, and an art course delves into the lives of Portuguese immigrants. “For the first time these students are learning about themselves and about that corner where they come from,” said Engelbert Santana, the assistant dean of advisement.

In a bookshelf’s-worth of studies, psychologists have shown that imbuing undergraduates with a sense of belonging — the realization that they can reach out to their peers and their professors when they need help or advice — helps them cope with the predictable setbacks of college life. The same holds true for initiatives that develop what’s called a growth mind-set, the willingness to keep plugging away, instead of giving up, when a problem proves challenging. While all students can benefit from such support, minority students gain the most.

These insights underlie the emphasis on forging personal connections. When their classes seem too difficult, or personal problems overwhelm them, what one student called “multiple check-ins” keep them from going under. They can turn to a peer mentor, who understands, firsthand, what they’re going through; they can meet with one of the deans, who know them on a first-name basis; and they can go to their faculty adviser.

“The adviser is there to identify red flags — whether it’s finances, academics or personal,” Mr. Santana told me. “That means helping a student with a full-time job who’s majoring in biology deal with anxiety or helping a student get out of a toxic relationship.” Taja-Nia Henderson, a Rutgers law professor, believes that “if we hadn’t been there, the students wouldn’t have made it. They keep telling me: ‘I don’t have anyone else to talk to about this.’”

“The amount we get from everyone — peers, faculty, administration, faculty — is mind-blowing,” said Adebimpe Elegbeleye, a student from Nigeria. “The nurturing environment allows us to come to our full potential. I never thought that college could be like this. When I talk to friends at other universities and tell them what’s going on, they say, ‘Wow, you know this dean? You have what support?’”

“Initially, I was embarrassed to be part of the program,” Mohamed Abdelghany told me. He’s the student who was forever getting suspended from high school. “It felt like a lackluster attempt to rescue inner-city kids from failing high schools and call them ‘honor students’ to make them feel better.” He changed his mind, though, once he came to know his classmates. “These students are brilliant in their own way, but they did not have the tools or the support to build the best version of themselves. It’s a humbling experience when a group of people believe in you and your potential when you can’t see it.” Mohamed showed his leadership potential early: He was elected to the student Senate and was campaign manager for Adebimpe’s successful drive to be elected president of the student government. Now he’s headed to Harvard Law School.

Although the program doesn’t come cheap, the $37,000 per-student cost to Rutgers is more than 40 percent less than what Harvard charges for tuition, room and board, and the data indicates that the university is making a sensible bet. Despite the fact that these students fared worse in high school than the typical Rutgers-Newark freshman, their average first-year G.P.A. of B is half a grade higher than the overall university’s freshman class average of C+; and while 15 percent of Rutgers-Newark’s students drop out after their first year, no one in the honors program has quit college.

“This is a lab where new ideas can be tried out,” said Prof. Timothy K. Eatman, the dean of the Honors Living-Learning Community. Some innovations are going campuswide — for example, the admissions process is being redesigned to factor grit into the equation and advisers are being trained to focus less on getting students to follow rules and more on helping them figure out a path to graduation.

Universities that are rethinking the premises of an honors college can learn a lot from Rutgers. As Ms. Yavneh noted, “honors students from first-generation and other less traditional backgrounds are more likely to stay in school and graduate from honors because the high-impact practices we do in honors are the high-impact practices of special benefit to students from marginalized populations.”

The Honors Living-Learning Community demonstrates that students whom other universities wouldn’t give a second thought to can thrive if they get the kind of attention that their peers at more prestigious places take for granted. Imagine what would happen if this model went nationwide.