The Commonwealth Honors College is too exclusive

The availability of resources should not be hinged on high school performance


Judith Gibson-Okunieff / Daily Collegian

By Conor Johnston, Collegian Contributor

Formed in 1960, the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts has a long history of promoting academic excellence and scholarly work. It’s propped up in the University as acommunity of scholars, small classes, big ideas, and a campus full of opportunities.” With all of this and more, the Honors College has one goal in mind: academic excellence and exclusiveness.

During my first semester as an honors student here at UMass, I had a lot of respect for the Honors College. Yet, as the semester progressed, I’ve realized that the college is fueled the pretentiousness of its student body and the inequitable distribution of resources.

To even get into the Honors College in the first place is nonsensical. The community of scholars is invitation only, meaning freshmen get invited within their acceptance letters to the college. This has a lot of problems, such as admission being based solely on your high school merit. Admissions criteria based on high school merit has a history of classism, as it often excludes students unable to afford tutors or AP classes. The Honors College doesn’t even have a separate application process, only a short essay strung along with the rest of your common application. This means that the Honors College isn’t going to look at any additional essays, an aspect that many underrepresented students rely on to get into these programs in the first place.

Another problem with this system is that it acts as a deterrence for potential students in the following years. The Honors College portrays itself as an institution that is inclusive, one that allows for students to apply even if they’re not ambiguously invited in their acceptance letters. Yet, their academic requirements for the honors college begin your freshman year. According to the Honors College curriculum, there are three subsets of classes, “ideally taken in the first year.”  This can be problematic because it prevents students from wanting to join the Honors College when they realize that they are already behind.

This is all to say that the school’s ideal scholar is measured by the individual with the best high school transcript. This frames a lot of problems for the future of the University when you visualize the resources diverted to the CHC. The honors-only residential area, the Commonwealth Honors College Residential Community, is a testament to this, costing more than $193 million to build. Additionally, the CHCRC is completely separate from the rest of the institution and is set up to be the best housing on campus. Proximity to classes and the aesthetics of the buildings are among the many reasons why students feel left out from the community.

Finally, the CHC promotes inequality through its distribution of financial resources. Scholarships exclusive to Honors students total more than $350,000, money that could be spent on students who simply didn’t perform as well in high school. Additionally, CHC classes are typically smaller, offer intensive scholarly resources for their students and promote an inequitable distribution of learning.

A lot of problems, as I mentioned before, could be labeled as inequality seen across the country’s finest institutions. Honors Colleges, in general, are particularly problematic across state schools because they invite pretentiousness and exclusivity inside a school that should be anything but.

To realize why UMass is uniquely problematic with its honors college, I point to other state schools that operate their honors curriculum with more care. Pennsylvania State University, a school much larger than UMass, requires a comprehensive application to its program. The Penn State Honors College judges applicants based off of its graduates, not its students’ high school transcripts. In a much more progressive route, the University of Nebraska works to destabilize the exclusiveness of honors programs from the top down by “empowering students from underrepresented populations.”

The University is not meant to be painted as some evil institution hinged on exclusivity. It’s hard to ignore, however, that UMass’ Honors College is very exclusive and based off of trivial and often classist performances. An honors education means nothing if it remains as a book that only few can hold. If the University is keen on upending classism, it must start with its Honors College. Perhaps, we can even advertise our program’s success without showcasing the students’ GPAs in high school first.

Conor Johnston can be reached at [email protected].