Periodic Program Review AY 2020-21

Executive Summary

The Honors College benefits SUNY Brockport in important ways. From 2015 to 2019, the median size of our first-year class has been 81 students, averaging about seven per cent of Brockport’s incoming first-years. The academic credentials of our entering first-year classes are strong (averaging 1310 SAT/28 ACT; 95.51 HS GPA). This positions us among the most academically rigorous of SUNY’s Honors Colleges and programs. As this data suggests, the Honors College faculty, staff, and student volunteers play a major role in Brockport’s larger recruitment efforts; many of Brockport’s first-year students would not choose SUNY Brockport were it not for the unique opportunities the Honors College offers them, including our enhanced GE curriculum, peer-mentoring program, and extensive opportunities for advanced undergraduate research.

The Honors Scholarship (offered from 2012-2017 and covering full tuition, including an iPad) led to significantly increased enrollments over previous years. Since 2018, Honors students have received the Prometheus Scholarship instead, valued at only $4000 a year (just $1000 more than the less competitive Gold), and upon this reduction enrollments immediately declined to pre-Honors Scholarship levels. We work closely with Admissions and know that many of the students whom we recruited during the Honors Scholarship era came to Brockport not only because of the Honors College’s excellence and that of the university at large, but also because of the value a SUNY Brockport Honors education offered. We understand that the Excelsior Scholarship and temporary financial crisis occasioned by COVID make it unnecessary and inadvisable to revive the Honors Scholarship as previously constituted. But the data nonetheless suggests that there is room to grow our enrollments significantly by providing to prospective students a somewhat more enticing financial aid package than the Prometheus scholarship currently represents. Perhaps as many as 30 students per year may be immediately in play. Of course, depending on the exact scholarship package and how effectively it is leveraged in complementary recruitment strategies, that number could be higher.

The students the Honors College brings to Brockport tend to stay. Our institution graduation rate is quite high relevant to the Brockport population at large (84%), while our second-year retention rate is much better than the national average (96% vs. 86%). Our Honors graduation rate is aligned with the national average for programs at institutions of our type (53% vs. 58%).1 These numbers paint the picture of a solid Honors College at a regional master’s comprehensive university with a strong platform for continuing improvement.

We want to become even better. As things currently stand, the Honors College brings great value to Brockport, and we believe it can offer much more, in terms of the number, quality, and persistent engagement of students in high impact educational experiences, including faculty-mentored undergraduate research. Honors students are not segregated from the rest of the SUNY Brockport population; on the contrary, they take all but a handful of their classes outside of Honors. These excellent students, distributed throughout all departments and majors on campus, raise everybody’s game. For example, in the most recent campus-wide Scholars Day and Fall Symposium programs, Honors students accounted for just over 30% of all presentations. In the most recent Honors and Awards Ceremony, Honors students received about 25% of all awards, most of them distributed at the school or departmental level. Finally, although it is sometimes assumed that the Honors College student population is much less ethnically diverse and much wealthier than the Brockport population at large, the reality is different. According to the most recent data made available (Fall 2019), the percentage of minority students in the Honors College stands at 23%, which makes us only about seven per cent less diverse than the broader Brockport student population. Moreover, currently enrolled Honors students have a median financial need only slightly lower than that of the student population at large (~$15,000 vs. ~$17,400 per year). The Honors College is committed to increasing the diversity of our student body by recruiting excellent and ambitious students from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. We view ourselves as a key part of the solution to Brockport’s diversity challenges and have introduced initiatives to that end.

The Honors College fosters a culture of sustained improvement, having acted decisively on all of the significant issues identified in the last Joint Action Plan, including instituting major revisions to our curriculum. We have introduced a new one-credit course of which all first-year students are required to take two sections: HON 380, Interdisciplinary Colloquium. We have instituted a new curricular initiative: the Honors-wide first-year common read (recent examples include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Nathan Englander’s What We Talk about when We Talk about Anne Frank, and Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence), and we have tied our revised first-year Honors House LLC curriculum closely to it. We have made significant alterations to HON 112, Introduction to Honors, our first- year seminar. We have recruited an increasingly diverse faculty body to teach a wider range of Honors GE and specialized classes, including sections of African American Literature (ENG 235), Migration Experience (ANT 315), African American History, 1865-present (AAS 114), and Psychology, Prejudice, and Discrimination (HON 380). Beyond that, we have made adjustments to our thriving peer mentor program (HON 397, integrated within HON 112) and to the most extensive program of undergraduate student research on campus, the Honors Thesis (HON 395, Thesis Practicum; and HON 490, Senior Honors Thesis). In the 2019-2020 AY, 80 students were enrolled in HON 490, with 72 completing it.

While proud of our positive impact on the academic life of SUNY Brockport, we realize there is more we could do, and much we could do better.

  • We must continue improving our curriculum, especially HON 395, Thesis Practicum, which requires significant revision. Beyond that, we want to exercise more control over the Honors sections of GE courses we require our students to take, in order to assure quality and consistency. (At this point, we rely on academic departments even to assess most Honors GE courses, and even scheduling these courses is difficult.) This is a pressing concern since Honors students report in the NSSE that their coursework in the first year (when most take the majority of their Honors GE courses) emphasizes higher order learning at a rate significantly lower than that of the rest of the student population. That is a problem. We also anticipate that by raising the quality of our Honors GE courses, we could raise our honors graduation numbers even higher.
  • Over the last year, we have instituted a more holistic review of all Honors College applications (which are now SAT/ACT test-optional), even while maintaining the high standards reflected in the statistics mentioned above. This has been a difficult and time-consuming endeavor (we evaluate hundreds of applications every year), which we want not only to continue but to expand by inviting a more diverse array of faculty to evaluate Honors applications.
  • We must build on the work we have done during the last year especially to continue and increase our outreach to alumni, encouraging them to support the Honors College with their time and treasure, including inviting them into mentoring relationships with our students.
  • We must provide Honors students and associated faculty with more opportunities to share their research, both by supporting (financially and otherwise) external conference presentations and publication, and by creating informal opportunities for presentations and discussion of research here at Brockport.
  • Though HON 395 and 490 provide a sound structure that prepares our students for advanced undergraduate research, we must do better at promoting and incentivizing faculty to mentor the many Honors students who rely on close relationships with them in order to succeed in writing their theses. At this point, we rely on informal processes to match students with mentors and they are not always sufficient, especially for less-connected transfer students and for students in majors where mentored undergraduate research is not the norm. Part of this plan might involve financially or otherwise incentivizing the extraordinary and time-consuming work thesis advisement entails.
  • As mentioned above, we believe the Honors College should play a more central role in Brockport’s strategy to stabilize the University’s admissions numbers. The Honors College has a very attractive educational product on offer, and we would welcome the opportunity and appropriate support to reach out to local high school populations that might not always give SUNY Brockport due consideration, including the diverse eastside suburbs and RCSD schools such as School of the Arts and Rochester Early College High School. We have independently begun to play a larger role in recruiting from neighboring community colleges, attracting their most talented students to Brockport.

Frankly, the Honors College does not have the resources to pursue all these daunting tasks. The Honors College has only two faculty associated with it on a contractual basis, both of whom have primary teaching and research responsibilities in their home departments. The Honors Director receives two course releases per semester and a small stipend; the associate director receives one course release and a smaller stipend. We also have an immensely valuable administrative assistant, without whom the Honors College would cease to function. However, for one of the years under review, that position was split between the Honors College and an academic department on campus, and this is only one among several examples of the lack of resource stability we have recently faced. Our human resources are stretched especially thin for, in addition to the standard work of running not a department but a college within SUNY Brockport (including responsibilities of recruitment, admissions, curriculum planning, course scheduling, assessment, coordinating with Residential Life, and so on), the Honors directors virtually alone advise all Honors students (300-400 at any given time). The Honors College will only thrive and continue to enhance academic excellence at Brockport with a solution to these staffing challenges in place.

Our staffing plan is modest: a rotating cohort of faculty from various disciplines shared between home departments and the Honors College over a discrete period of time (two or three years). These faculty would regularly teach Honors courses (perhaps one a semester, combining three-credit GE courses in their home departments and one-credit HON overloads) over the period of their assignment and would be required to do some of their service within the HC, which would also count for their university-wide service commitment. They might receive an extra-service stipend and/or an annual course release, though other arrangements are possible (for example, a temporary reassignment of service from the home department to the Honors College). A rotating cohort of two or three Honors faculty (called Honors fellows?) on this basis would provide myriad benefits to the Honors College, as the report will make clear.

With such an arrangement in place, we anticipate being able to implement a robust joint action plan emerging from this PPR, involving further curriculum revision, improvement of Honors GE courses, expanded recruitment (outside Brockport and among current students) and alumni relations (including the cultivation of alumni giving). Since the Honors College has recently installed a new leadership team, this would seem to be a good to invest in its continued and expanded academic success.

1 Brockport data averages the 2015 and 2016 AYs, the relevant years reported later in the PPR. The national data comes from 2014 and 2015, the most recent years reported by the NCHC.