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If your child is considering enrolling in an honors college or honors program, this article can help you understand what an honors school is all about. If you are a parent of a superior, talented, gifted student and you are concerned about the challenges your child will face in a series of honors classes, this article can help you understand what to expect. The following article is written by John S. Grady, former Director of the University Honors Program at La Salle University, and he will give his unique parental insight into honors courses, the honors experience, and honors education.

Having experienced the college selection process firsthand as a parent of five children, each of whom is a graduate of the La Salle University Honors Program, I can appreciate some of your concerns. Given the intellectual talents your child has demonstrated, the task of college selection can be even more formidable. In addition to addressing that challenge, I have attempted to respond to other parents’ concerns throughout the three decades I have served as an honors program director. With this dual perspective of parent and director, I hope what follows proves to be helpful.

An honors program raises real concerns

Although each parent has concerns specific to his or her child and situation, I believe there are four major ones that parents and students have mentioned consistently over the years. In no particular order of importance, they are:

  • the fear of taking on too much, too soon with participation in an honors program or honors college
  • the fear of being labeled “elitist”
  • the desire to participate to the fullest in the total undergraduate experience
  • the parent’s natural desire to be kept informed of the student’s progress

An honors program: too much, too soon?

Some students will be apprehensive about taking on the challenge participation in honors presents. They might question their ability to compete with some of the most intellectually gifted students on the campus. But, if you reflect for a minute and recall their track record, these are students who have established a pattern of willingness to accept academic risks. They have been challenged by the best at every level and they have succeeded. Quite possibly, one of the factors that contributed significantly to that success was their acceptance of that challenge. Their history is not to be denied and, other things being equal, there is every reason to believe they will continue to excel at this next level.

Honors college doesn’t make a person “elitist”

No one would deny that different people have been blessed with different talents, and many have exceptional talents. There are differences among individuals and we would be remiss if we did not recognize and address them. Colleges and universities have long recognized differences in physical and athletic abilities. Some gifted athletes participate at one level, others less gifted at a somewhat different level. Is this anything more than the recognition and addressing of different endowments? Should this be any less true when the gifts are intellectual? That some students, such as your child, possess these intellectual gifts—that they constitute an academic elite, if you will—is simply a fact. One of the purposes of an honors program is to recognize this fact and provide those students with the means necessary to develop their talents. I do not see this as being elitist; I see it as being responsible.

Honors courses do not weaken the undergraduate experience

If you examine the structure of most honors programs carefully, you will recognize that, in all cases, a student is only “part-time” in honors classes. Typically, an honors program student will be completing core or general education requirements in honors courses while pursuing major courses and electives in the general curriculum. Such a structure belies identification as separatist, since the vast majority of the students’ class time will be outside honors. Rather than encouraging withdrawal from the full undergraduate experience, the honors program student is encouraged to lead in broad areas that will further develop talents. Ironically, then, the honors program student is both part of the full community and the honors community, reaping the varied benefits of full participation in each. Indeed, honors program students have been exceptional at building bridges that unite. Again, in most cases, this has been simply one more extension of a student’s prior academic history.

Honors classes inform the students, not the parents

For many, a child’s advancement to college represents the first extended separation from family. As a parent or guardian, we want to be kept apprised of progress, as well as difficulty; we want to continue to parent. While this can certainly be accomplished, you must be cognizant of limitations imposed by law. Since most college students have reached the age of 18, their right to privacy, including college activities in and out of the classroom, is protected by law. As a professor or as an honors program director, I am not permitted to reveal your child’s academic, social, disciplinary, etc., records to you without his or her permission. So, as a parent like you, I want every possible assurance the environment in which my child will learn, socialize, and grow will be a nurturing and caring one, one that addresses the development of the whole person, as well as demanding the best of that person. This is what we attempt to create in the honors communities.

An honors program steps into your shoes

I would like to conclude, as I began, on a personal note. Having seen more than 1,600 students complete their honors education and move on to successful careers and productive lives has been most rewarding. This has been particularly so in the case of my own children, who often speak to how valuable their honors experience was in strengthening their values and shaping their careers. My two daughters completed their legal studies and are now attorneys with major national law firms—one specializing in litigation and the other in employment law. One son had been a prosecutor for five years and now has his own practice; his brother completed his M.P.P. degree and works in economic development. Given my own experience, there is no doubt in my mind that the honors program experience was the best possible alternative to in loco parentis.