Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The Commonwealth Honors College is too exclusive

The availability of resources should not be hinged on high school performance
Judith Gibson-Okunieff / Daily Collegian

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].


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  • T

    TMJun 7, 2023 at 8:48 am

    It’s an HONORS college and the resources absolutely should be hinged on school performance. Because it’s an HONORS college. This sounds like an attempt to continue to dumb down our children which started with the participation trophy. Students can attend the regular university if they don’t have the grades to cut it. What in your mind is wrong with success and hard work and achievement, which you need to succeed in life; there are no participation trophies given out. Like the comment before mine, I am also “Wicked Smaht” and got into a great university in Boston with my grades and I was excepted to Boston Latin, which was an exam school at the time and if your grades weren’t there you didn’t get in and there is nothing wrong with that. Should Juliet and Berkley Should accept anyone who has NO talent? No, they should not. I have a great career and a wonderful husband and 3 kids in their 20’s who all have degrees, despite growing up in a bad part of Boston. My oldest attended the Honors College and got a great education, graduating with a degree in Animal Science with a minor in Biochemistry and was accepted to 4 Vet schools and she got that with hard work, determination and excellent grades. She loved every minute at UMass and mixed and mingled freely with everyone on campus. The school is right on the campus so it is not isolated. This article almost blew the top of my head off in astonishment. Would you want a second rate doctor because he/she was pushed through school despite his grades? Shame on you for discouraging having grades be meaningless.

  • K

    KTFeb 2, 2022 at 1:11 pm

    I graduated, magna cum laude, from the Commonwealth Scholars program in 1986. In my college career I was inducted into: (1) Alpha Lambda Delta, an honor society for freshmen; (2) Golden Key National Honor Society; (3) Phi Kappa Phi; (4) Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society; and (5) Phi Beta Kappa.

    I had never even heard of those honor societies until I received invitations from each one in the mail, because I lived in a bit of a vacuum back then, and the Internet had not yet been invented or at least made available to the general public.

    Back when I was a happy science major (who ended up only 2 credits shy of a minor in Spanish), we Commonwealth Scholars lived amongst other students who were NOT enrolled in the program, and I think it made life a lot better for everyone. Nobody knew I was “wicked smaht” (as my proud parents, God rest their souls, used to call me in the privacy of our home) and I did not even tell people I was enrolled in the program.

    I had been a very sickly student, in high school, and my grades were awful. In fact, my doctor wrote a letter to the UMass Admissions Committee and asked them to give me a chance because he thought I had potential and had been robbed of a good high school transcript by my unavoidable illness.

    Two surgeries later, I was admitted to UMass and I excelled because, well, that’s what we nerds do. I was invited to be a Commonwealth Scholar in my Freshman year and I accepted.

    The thing that benefitted me tremendously is that none of my peers even knew. I purposely kept it a secret at UMass, though my parents and I were very happy.

    This secret life allowed me to meet guys, socialize, and be one of the gang, and we had a very fun time. It brought me out of my shell and made me the very social, caring, helpful, and fun-loving person that I am today.

    So in my opinion, I think it’s better for the Commonwealth Scholars to mingle amongst their peers who are not so focused on their GPAs, as I was. Having visited the Commonwealth Scholar dorms, I’m blown away by how fancy they are. I think the program, in its current state, is rather elitist and classist, and it’s only breeding a more snobby class of scholars.

    I am in my 50s now and still one of the hardest workers in my profession, and one of the hardest workers at everything I do. I still strive for excellence and still demand the best of myself. I had those traits in my hospital bed, in high school, and I believe most Commonwealth Scholars do.

    There’s no need to separate the Commonwealth Scholars from the rest of the student population, in my opinion, and I am very grateful for all the wonderful times I had mingling with my peers, sharing laughs, getting into funny predicaments, pulling off some harmless pranks, and all the other silly things they got me into, like intramural sports, trips to Puerto Rico, and taking some of the most memorable bike rides ever.

    Thank you for considering my opinion on this. I still love UMass a lot, I plan to volunteer there more, in the near future, and I am wishing the best for every student, regardless of GPA. Although our grades may open doors, they certainly do not define us, as people.