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ECU Honors College on the Horizon

By Karen Shugart

An East Carolina University Honors College could enroll students as soon as fall 2012.

That’s an optimistic projection, but administrators are certain of the ultimate goal: the creation of a robust honors college that will raise ECU’s national profile and expand opportunities for top-notch students and faculty.

The push to create a full-fledged college reflects a trend among honors programs across the country and mirrors Chancellor Steve Ballard’s retention and enrollment goals, said Marilyn Sheerer, provost and senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

“If you get an honors college that’s really good, you change the expectations of classes in general,” Sheerer said. “You build on the academic culture. Just as we’re changing the culture here at ECU more in the direction of research, we’re trying to change the culture in terms of upping the academic expectations.”

Last February, Sheerer created a task force that outlined a three-year plan to transform the existing honors program into a college. Sheerer hopes this spring to begin a national search for a dean this spring after the Chancellor approves a funding plan. A task force led by Marsha Ironsmith, associate professor of psychology, is working on that proposal.

“This is a great opportunity for us to do something that’s exclusively for undergraduate students and that will greatly benefit the university as a whole,” Ironsmith said.

ECU has long had an honors program that gave students access to more challenging classes and research opportunities. In the mid-1960s, the university began offering seminars for students by request. A two-year honors program was created in 1978. Fifteen years later, the program grew to four years.

Today, about 900 students are enrolled. Entering freshman are eligible if they have a minimum 1200 on the SAT and a grade-point average of at least 3.5. Current ECU students may be admitted with a GPA of 3.3 or higher, while transfer students from community colleges must have a 3.5.

This is not the first time the university has considered developing an honors college. The Faculty Senate in 1996 authorized, and the chancellor approved, the establishment of a residential honors college. The program never attained college status, however, and later was renamed the University Honors Program.

A third-party review of ECU’s honors college in April 2008 recommended the university create an honors college and noted the program needed more resources.

“The advantage it has is that the college is run by a dean and the dean is on the council of deans and, as a result, would have greater clout [and] more ability, I think, to compete for funding with the other programs,” Ironsmith said. “And it heightens visibility to the public. It gives us sort of a different strategy for marketing the program to parents and students.”

A college also would provide avenues to top-flight students while continuing to provide eastern North Carolina residents, including first-generation college students, with access to a university education, Sheerer said.

“When we do that, everybody will win,” Sheerer said.

Creating an honors college will allow the university to compete with other in-state universities, as well as out-of-state peer institutions, that already have colleges.

“The University of South Carolina – right across the boarder – has been able to attract a lot of North Carolina students because it’s a public university but also has this really top-notch honors college,” Sheerer said.

Four universities in the UNC System have honors colleges: UNC - Charlotte, UNC -Greensboro, UNC - Pembroke and Western Carolina. All but one institution in the UNC system has an honors program.

Administrators have been focusing on ways to attract top students and keep them at ECU. Honors students have higher graduation rates. Of undergrads admitted to ECU in fall 2005, 74 percent of honors students by April 2009 had applied for graduation or had received a degree. That’s far above overall national and UNC system average four-year graduation rates.

The slow economy may actually help attract students. Many private institutions are struggling to match the aid packages they offered in past years. Add to that family budget woes, and some academically strong high school seniors who before would have chosen private schools are reconsidering public universities.

The university will be seeking funding from the private sector. Sheerer said she has already heard from some parties interested in making gifts, and she hopes to get the college named with a significant contribution. Alumni, as well as parents of honors students, may also give.

“They want ECU to be known not only for its football, not only for its social life, but for its academic pursuits,” Sheerer said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of support for it.”

Kevin Baxter, an honors program administrator at the University of Maryland, already has been hired as associate director for the Honors Program. He will be a part of executing the three-year plan.

This story appeared originally in the Dec. 21, 2009 issue of Pieces of Eight. An archived version of that issue is available at http://www.ecu.edu/news/cs-admin/poe/2009/1209/December-2009-Archives.cfm.