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The "little" college that could

In the shadow of a $300 million gift to the U of A, UCA's Honors College hustles to attract its most elite class yet.


It's an unexpected and gratifying thing for an erstwhile geek to hear: The president of a state university sounding positively giddy about landing one of the smartest high school students in the state. Lu Hardin tosses the number out like it's a basketball player's scoring average: "This year, I think we've even got a 35!" But the University of Central Arkansas president is talking ACT scores, and a 35 is just one point below perfect - a score high enough to all but guarantee an Ivy League-level acceptance letter. Hear "honors college" in Arkansas these days and you're likely to think about the University of Arkansas's flagship Fayetteville campus, which got a $300 million gift from Walton family a few years ago, $200 million of which is earmarked to further enrich the UA's honors program. But Fayetteville didn't exactly pioneer the concept of the interdepartmental honors college in Arkansas; that distinction more fairly falls to UCA, whose honors college was only the 14th such program in the country when it was established in 1982. The college has been plugging along for more than two decades, quietly (although less and less so) attracting those of the state's elite high school seniors who either can't afford or simply don't want to pay for a name-brand undergraduate degree. This fall's recruiting class promises to be the most elite of all: Of 170 potential students, 50 have ACT scores of 32 or higher, up from just 18 the year before. Chalk it up to changes made since - although honors college officials say not necessarily because - Fayetteville got its windfall: More advertising, intensified recruiting efforts by the honors college's faculty. Plans for a new honors college complex, with dorms, classrooms and meeting space. And perhaps most importantly, a new scholarship just for that very top tier of students that gives them, as freshmen, a private room in an honors dorm. That's in addition to the typical honors college package of full tuition, room and board (private rooms for sophomores and above), guaranteed grants for study abroad and internship programs, and an intimate, semi-autonomous learning community that promises to shower them with individual attention from Day One. It's a hard offer to beat - or to turn down. "It was everything I was looking for," said Sarah Harvey, an art history and religious studies major from Little Rock who chose UCA over Hendrix and the College of Charleston. "Writing, reading, talking about philosophy and ideas, world events." The Honors College's faculty and students like to quote a U.S. education official who visited more than a decade ago: The school, he said, delivers an Ivy League education at a bargain-basement price. "The scholarship is critical," said Rick Scott, who holds the title of honors college director but in reality still shares duties with Norb Schedler, the semi-retired professor who founded the program 22 years ago. "What they're looking at is a full ride here versus something less than that out of state." Schedler is just the kind of guy you'd expect to end up talking to for a story like this: Tweed jacket, bowtie, round glasses, professor of philosophy and religious studies, defender of those disciplines against anyone who would argue the prudence of graduating from college with a marketable skill. And well, let's just say it, his name is Norbert. Schedler is a product of this country's select private schools: his high school diploma is from a parochial school in St. Louis, his doctorate from Princeton, with stints at Washington and Oxford universities in between. But in his teaching career, Schedler said, he made a conscious decision to seek out public universities because he worried that higher education was too elitist. It may seem somewhat ironic, then, that just five years after he came to UCA, Schedler struck up a conversation with the university's then-president about the need to provide a separate program for "severely gifted" students. And Schedler acknowledges that some at UCA still resent the extra perks and attention honors college students receive. But it's not elitism, he insists. "One of the reasons we started the honors college is because the educational system is elitist as it is," Schedler said: Only wealthy children have access to the country's top private universities. "This is democratizing top-notch education." Scott added that elitism implies "unmerited reward," and that the honors college students have earned the preferential treatment they get. Besides, he said, nobody defines football programs as elitist because players get access to special equipment, or criticizes music programs for spending $50,000 on a piano for highly talented students. "It's providing resources for different gifts," he said. Attitudes about the honors college are "extremely varied," Harvey, a junior, said. Some of her professors are excited about the opportunities she's had, but there's also some social stigma attached. "Like I'll be sitting in a classroom, and I'll talk about something I learned in Honors class - and other students might say, 'Oh, she thinks she's better than me because she's in honors.' They make assumptions about who I am based on my being in honors." UCA's honors college recruited its first class of 45 students in the fall of 1982, just one year after Schedler floated the idea. In those days, Schedler said, attracting students was a much harder sell. Nobody had heard of an honors college, and top-tier students were less willing to take a chance on UCA's. Schedler and his colleagues sought out the late bloomers - students whose grades and test scores didn't necessarily reflect their true academic potential, but who came with excellent recommendations from teachers or counselors. Over the years, though, the job has gotten easier. Honors college alumni have helped spread the word, and guidance counselors across the state readily recommend the program to their promising students. The perks have gotten better too: In the 1990s, the college added dedicated honors housing - in private rooms for sophomores, juniors and seniors - and beefed up its funding for study abroad, research and internship grants. The college now turns away up to twice as many students as it admits, and while late bloomers still have a place in the honors college, Schedler said, they have less chance of getting in than they used to. "It's like dying and waking up and being in paradise," he said. "We have more good students than we can handle." Schedler and Scott claim that keeps them from feeling like they're in competition with the state's other honors colleges and programs. "When Fayetteville got the grant from the Waltons, everyone at this campus got nervous," Scott said. "We thought, 'How can we compete with that?' We decided to just keep doing what we're doing. There's plenty of good students to go around." In 1999, honors college officials decided to begin hiring their own faculty, professors whose backgrounds especially suited them to teach the honors college's interdisciplinary curriculum. That curriculum is what sets UCA's honors college apart from most of the 1,100 or so honors programs across the country. Many function like Fayetteville's did before the Waltons' gift: each department or school within the university has its own requirements for honors students, and the programs function separately. UCA's, in contrast, has a sequence of four or five courses honors students must take in their first two years, geared toward teaching students to think and read critically, and to write and speak persuasively. They study the history of ideas and the principles of aesthetics. In their junior years, students complete an independent study styled after tutorials at Oxford University: students read on their own, and meet with a professor once a week to discuss what they've learned. Senior year, students write a major thesis. While they complete a traditional academic major in whatever department they choose, they earn a minor in interdisciplinary studies through the honors college. And, if they're interested, they can take advantage of the college's funding for education outside UCA's walls. Ashley Ridlon is the honors college's poster child for this particular perk. She's studied in the Netherlands and Belize. While she's still an undergraduate at UCA, she spent the 2002-03 school year on a Rotary scholarship earning a master's degree from King's College in London. She'll head to Africa soon to help develop a study-abroad program in Niger. Still, she has nagging worries about what is perhaps the honors college's single weakness: Lack of prestige. "I feel like if I apply to Harvard [for graduate school] - I really wish they knew the quality of this program and the difference it makes to our education as a whole," Ridlon said. "People say, 'Why didn't you go to Hendrix if you live in Arkansas?' That's the only name they know." Within honors college circles, UCA has a fantastic reputation. Its graduates include a Rhodes Scholar, a Truman Scholar and a Fulbright Fellow. A Christian Science Monitor story on honors colleges a few years ago focused on the school, and Schedler has become a sought-after consultant nationally. But he and Scott admit they haven't fully conquered the perception that a second-tier state university couldn't possibly produce graduates on par with those from better-known, more exclusive schools. It's less a problem than it could be, they say, because between 85 percent and 90 percent of the honors college's graduates go on to graduate school. The kinds of experiences they get at UCA - study abroad, research and internship grants, writing a thesis - are exactly what grad schools look for. The college's alumni have an almost perfect medical-school admissions record, Scott said. Harvey, who plans to go on to grad school, said that she doesn't judge her honors college experience just on the book education she's gotten. "For me it's been an education of a way to live in the world that's more sharing, that takes account of other people," she said. "…Ideas - you have to deal with them head on. You come out knowing yourself so much better and knowing how you want to live in the world so much better."

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