Attend “Celebrating Honors”
Barrett Honors College key to recruiting top students
About six years ago, ASU admissions dean Tim Desch started hearing heady comments from faculty about first-year students: Freshman classes were more animated, the professors were saying, with students asking more questions and paying better attention. They seemed better prepared, more “tuned-in,” and they sparked a contagious energy.
Having just become director of admissions a few years earlier, Desch hardly dared to hope that a new strategy for reshaping the freshman class could already be paying off. But the following year his heart skipped a beat when he saw the freshman numbers. The positive “buzz” had been buttressed by better test scores, more merit scholarship recipients, and increased numbers of Arizona students choosing to study at ASU, not heading out of state or south to Tucson.
A new strategy
Increasing the size of the incoming freshmen classes was the easier part. ASU’s first-time freshman class in 1995 was just more than 4,000, less than 10 percent of the student body, and Desch set a goal to reach 6,000 freshmen by 2003. But ASU hit that number three years early, in 2000. By fall 2004, the university had enrolled 7,719 freshmen, a record 17 percent of all undergraduates.
To grow the collective brain power of the student body, Desch and other administrators became well-traveled talent scouts. In 1999, ASU began aggressively recruiting National Merit Scholars across the United States. Former Barrett Honors College Dean Ted Humphrey traveled thousands of miles around the country visiting National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists, a practice that his successor, Mark Jacobs, continues today.
As a result of Humphrey’s and Jacob’s frequent flights, ASU is fourth in the nation among public schools in the number of freshman National Merit Scholars, enrolling 162 in fall 2004, and 482 overall. It’s a dramatic increase from 1991, when there were just six freshman National Merit Scholars, and 24 overall. Also significant is the five-fold increase in the number students receiving merit scholarships between 1994 and 2004.
The secret weapon
“The Barrett Honors College is the key piece in all our recruiting efforts that puts us over the top,” said Desch, running his finger over a map of cities where he and his staff go to recruit. “It serves as our shining example of what this institution can provide to high achieving students, and we use that to the full extent. It provides a quality of experience not found at other universities of this size. Students can literally reap the benefits of both worlds.”
Jacobs said he and his assistant deans are the only honors deans in the country that he knows of who personally travel out of state to recruit top students. And the one-on-one attention from a dean is persuasive.
“I really felt like they wanted me personally, which is a great feeling,” said Michael Rodriguez-Torrent, a freshman National Merit Scholar majoring in theater from Connecticut. “They put me in touch with theater faculty, arranging a personal itinerary and meeting with Dean Jacobs for my visit. I was completely sold.”
There are ways in which the university’s size can work in favor of attracting top students — while students at a small liberal arts college may have only a couple of dozen majors to choose from, ASU undergraduates have about 125, a big selling point. Yet students in the honors college program say they get the personal attention they’d expect at a small school.
“It’s easy to meet people, and we have classes right outside our door. It’s like a little oasis here,” said Ryan Lutz, a freshman from Pennsylvania who persuaded his best friend to enroll also, after a campus visit. Both are National Merit Scholars. “What really convinced us both was getting to sit in on a Human Event class. It was just so cool.”
The two-semester Human Event course, a humanities class taught seminar style, is required for all freshmen in the honors program. Groups of 19 or fewer students gather around one large table with faculty. Designed to exercise critical thinking and writing skills, it’s a tough class—even for exceptional students.
“The Human Event course is a bit of a shock to them, because it is very writing- intensive,” said Jacobs. “A 10-page paper may be returned with five pages of constructive feedback, and it’s often the lowest grade students have at ASU. But they love the course.”
To stay in the Barrett Honors College, students must collect 36 honors credits and complete a two-semester senior thesis. All the colleges and schools within the university collaborate with the program to offer honors credits, sometimes through individual “honors contracts” entailing more study. Students also get to take honors section courses from ranked faculty. Edward Prescott, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in economics, is teaching an honors undergraduate economics course in the W. P. Carey School this semester.
A personal touch
“About two weeks ago I got an e-mail that some honors students might be able to take a graduate level class with (former ASU president) Lattie Coor,” said Beazley. “I called the number to make sure it was cool that I registered. A gentleman answered and it was Lattie Coor! I know it sounds nerdy, but this guy has a building named after him, c’mon! We talked for a bit about the class, and I can honestly say I have never been so stoked for a single class in my life.”
Professors are delighted with the increased quality of the student body and say having increased numbers of top students in their classes benefits everyone, raising the level of class discussion and raising the bar for all students.
“Students have definitely gotten better and better at ASU, and they do raise the expectations for everybody else,” said Jane Maienschein, professor of biology and society. “It makes for better classes, because students learn together and share the experience.”
“If students in a class hear insights and ideas from their peers, it has more impact than hearing it from their professor,” said Ed Hackett, sociology professor. “Many students who are not in the Honors College are equally motivated and able, and this rachets up the quality of education for them, too.”