Originally published Sept. 8, 2013
When freshmen Kelsey Keipert toured Grand Valley State University last year, she was enchanted by the sterile Niemeyer Living Center and the simple general education program of the Frederik Meijer Honors College.
Thus, she eliminated the University of Michigan and Michigan State University from consideration and enrolled for her fall semester in the still-growing college.
Keipert joined the ranks of more than 400 other freshmen in a record-setting honors class.
“It amazes me, to tell you the truth, because people are looking at (other) schools and choosing Grand Valley,” said Honors College Director Jeffrey Chamberlain, noting places like the University of Michigan and Northwestern University as schools that also received applications from the honors students. “They told us in the survey, nearly 80 percent said Grand Valley was their first choice and a large proportion of those said the Honors College was a major reason. That bodes well for us in the sense that I think we can continue to attract people.”
Chamberlain said there were 389 freshmen in the 2012 class, and while the official numbers for 2013 have not yet been calculated, he anticipates a class of about 430 in 2013.
This trend follows closely with that of other years. With the exception of a slight dip in 2010, the honors freshmen class has expanded each year. “We’ve been growing six or seven percent or more every year,” Chamberlain said, adding that the growth has resulted from an increase in qualified applicants as opposed to more inclusive acceptance policies.
When combined with improved retention rates, the growth of the freshmen class correlates to a growth of the college as a whole.
Philip Batty, director of Institutional Analysis at GVSU, found that from 2007 to 2012, the Honors College grew from 944 to 1,332 total students.
The growth may begin to slow in the next few years, though.
“In terms of ‘how much do we expand,’ that’s still under discussion,” Chamberlain said, but he added that there could be a natural “leveling-off” point. “Normally in a university, an honors college is about 6 percent or 10 — at the max — of the percent of the university students overall. Eight percent is a more common figure, and we’re not quite at 8 percent yet. We will be about that when we reach 1,500 (total students), so it might be kind of a natural place to level off a little bit.”
Chamberlain said he expects the number to be close to 1,400 this fall, which puts the college just short of its 8-percent, 1,500-student point.
Even as the college approaches its potential peak, though, the director does not expect a more stringent application process to prevent further growth and make the college more exclusive.
“I don’t believe that raising expectations for an ACT score will result in better students — and it would be hard to have higher standards for high school GPA, since our average is now nearly 4.0,” Chamberlain said. “We could be more discriminating about writing skills or depth of thought — and it may come to that — but I don’t think Honors should be so ‘exclusive’ that it bars extremely competent students. I’d rather find ways to accommodate the numbers as long as we have resources to do so.”
A steady trend of freshmen eligible for Honors has correlated with a steady acceptance rate and could contribute to the “natural leveling-off” that Chamberlain expects to see.
The number of incoming GVSU freshmen eligible for the Honors College with an ACT composite score of at least 28 and a high school GPA of 3.5 or higher remained fairly constant over the years in spite of increases in attendance. Batty found that 498 new freshmen in 2007 brought in these records, while 508 in 2012 did the same.
The percentage of eligible freshmen who actually enrolled in the Honors College was 50.2 percent in 2007 and 53 percent in 2012.
“The acceptance rate has been pretty much the same,” Chamberlain said. “The number of applicants has been growing.”
As the college continues to see record numbers of freshmen, the focus is not so much on initial class growth, but on retention in later years.
“The point to me is a critical point: if we start losing retention (or) if retention starts getting worse,” Chamberlain said. “To me, that shows that we’re not really accommodating students very effectively, and I think we’ve accommodated them quite well. We’ve managed to keep up with freshmen sequences and expand our offerings significantly and in ways I think are really enriching.”
This year, the college added two interdisciplinary freshmen sequences — which are general education requirements for honors students — and revived a retired sequence. Last year, two or three others were added to keep up with the rising demand brought on by new freshmen.
“People are coming out of the woodwork who want to create new and unique sequences,” Chamberlain said, adding that he’d like to see the trend continue.
The college has also been required to respond to housing difficulties as the class sizes expand.
Previously, the Niemeyer Living and Learning Center accommodated all freshmen honors students, as well as a few upperclassmen who elected to retain their residency. Now, with greater freshmen interest, the college has had to create a second honors community in Hills Living Center and then spill even more freshmen into Pickard Living Center, which is two-thirds honors this year.
Chamberlain said the college may devise plans in the future to construct classrooms in the new living centers to make them more like the original Niemeyer building, or a new building will be constructed, altogether.
While the freshman class and college, itself, continue to grow, transfer numbers remain stagnant — and low.
“What I’m trying to get a handle on, to tell you the truth, is when we turn someone down, we almost never see that person again, even though we said in a letter (that) you can always apply once you’re already (at GVSU),” Chamberlain said. “They don’t tend to come back.”
Chamberlain said he thinks the main reason is that most students don’t realize the opportunity is there. The Honors College is working to get the word out, though.
“It does get more difficult if somebody’s coming in fairly late in their academic career,” he said, adding that students bringing in completed general education credits would overlap requirements if they took Honors courses.
Even still, the college took in more transfers this year than ever, and changes to academic programs that would allow students to take honors courses through their majors might increase the number even more in the future.
Original publication: http://www.lanthorn.com/article/2013/09/no-greater-honor