Leveraging Existing Areas of Innovation


For a couple of decades, the Honors Program languished as an underfunded afterthought to Northwestern’s academic mission, despite the yeoman work of several past faculty directors. In Spring 2016, this changed when the faculty unanimously passed a major overhaul to the honors curriculum.  Among the numerous changes, two aspects of this overhaul were significant: 

1. The Honors Program moved away from randomly offered classes taught as course overloads to a more predictable set of courses integrated into faculty’s regular teaching loads.  These classes embrace interdisciplinarity as their hallmark, even to the point of providing students with options as to which NWCore category the course fulfills.

2.  Unstated in the proposal—but just as important—the overhaul formally placed the Honors Program in front of the entire faculty for the first time in years, helping to create a broader sense of ownership.  The Honors Program does not belong to the co-directors; it belongs to the entire NWC community.

Since the overhaul, the Honors Program has been gaining recognition for its new interdisciplinary approach, having received a Portz Grant (awarded annually to only two colleges nationwide) for curriculum development from the National Collegiate Honors Council in 2017.  The co-directors subsequently were invited to present the new curriculum at the 2018 NCHC National Conference.

What has gone under the radar is the well-established correlation between participation in the Honors Program and student retention.  According to two different statistical analyses conducted by the Director of Institutional Research, the retention rates of honors students not only easily outpaces those of the NWC student body at large, they even outpace the retention rates of students with similar GPAs (3.5 and above) who are not members of the Honors Program.  On average over the last 15 years, about 94% of honors students stay at Northwestern until they graduate.

The overhaul did require structural rethinking (how we approach team teaching, stipends for instructors, courses that meet the objectives of more than one Core category simultaneously, new academic requirements such as “Honors Components”), but these new structures are now in place and allow for a greater sense of freedom in how we deliver academic content to our highest achieving students.

Suggestions for Northwestern

The Lab suggests leveraging the Honors Program in the following ways:

1. Implement more problem and experience based learning opportunities.  Whereas interdisciplinarity is a growing strength, the honors curriculum is still largely confined to the traditional classroom.  The Honors SSA in Greece (offered every other year) is a notable exception, but cost and time commitment prohibit it from being a universally shared experience. The Lab recommends a problem-based capstone course, tackling a real (perhaps local) issue, where students bring their disciplinary expertise to a shared problem-solving table.

2. Increase commitment to the Honors Program in the form of resources and recruitment.  As of the 2018-19 academic year, the Honors Program began admitting students directly out of high school, in part so that it could serve as a recruiting tool for Northwestern’s highest achieving applicants. Beginning in the fall of 2020, NWC will be awarding renewable Honors Program Scholarships for the first time, something that several of our competitors have been doing for years.  These are steps in the right direction, but the program still functions on a minimal budget and awards only institutional service points to its co-directors.  If the program is to expand (and retention numbers indicate that it should), it will need a larger footprint.

3. Forge new methods of creating an Honors Program experience for underrepresented departments like Business and Education.  While “Honors Scholarship” is an improvement over “Honors Research,” the program still has less appeal to students in professional programs, especially those that are already packed with accreditation requirements.

Perhaps most importantly, the Lab recommends that the Honors Program be viewed as a laboratory in its own right, a place where pedagogical and interdisciplinary experimentation can occur.  This program already features a retooled structure and some of the best and brightest students from across all departments.  Should we entertain alternative course scheduling? Redefine “seat time”? Cooperate with a local business or organization? Join multiple disciplines into a single learning experience?  Blend online and classroom work? The Honors Program is uniquely suited to take on the challenge.

Strategic Plan

Goal 3.1 – Pursue strategic enrollment growthIncrease residential undergraduate enrollment to 1,050 by 2023.

Goal 1.3- Increase opportunity and resources for faculty-student collaborative research and scholarship.