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Honors Program isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

By Daniel Miller

April 17, 2005 9:00 p.m.

Students take part in the College Honors Program at UCLA for a
variety of reasons. Some students participate in it because it
gives them priority enrollment. Others do it because it gives them
access to honors counselors, while some take part in the program
because they think it is prestigious and will pad their

“I originally thought it would get me more honor from
people,” fourth-year mathematics student Adam Hirsch

There’s that too.

It’s noteworthy that when I asked several College Honors
Program students why they labored in Honors Collegium classes,
Honors designated courses or Departmental Honors Program courses, a
scant few mentioned that they took part in the program because they
wanted a challenging academic experience.

Or specifically, “the most challenging educational
experience possible to students at UCLA drawn from the most
representative and diverse populations as possible in an
environment that nurtures the whole student academically, socially,
emotionally and intellectually.”

That’s the mission statement for the Honors Programs at
UCLA. Professors who teach Honors Collegium courses think this
challenging academic experience is the motivation for students to
take their classes.

“These are the top students in university; they are
challenging themselves by taking something interdisciplinary, and I
think it takes a special kind of student to do that,”
visiting chemistry and biochemistry Professor Eric Scerri said.

“They are certainly more active students,” sociology
Professor William Roy said. “I get good students in all my
classes. It’s not that I think students in other classes
aren’t good enough. (But) the honors students tend to be more

Despite professors’ best intentions, I think that students
and professors’ goals in the program are at odds. That is not
to say that there aren’t students who take part in the
program because they love to learn. But certainly there is a
sizeable group of students who take part in it because of the
aforementioned non-academic benefits.

While students in the College Honors Program get credit through
Honors Contracts or through Honors designated courses, they are
required to take Honors Collegium courses. These courses are the
cornerstone of the College Honors Program ““ they take an
interdisciplinary approach to learning and allow for close
student-faculty relations. Many professors love to teach these

“I like teaching my honors class for several reasons:
First, the students are highly motivated to learn new ideas …
Second, yes, teaching an honors class definitely provides more
academic freedom in the sense that I can approach specific topics
from interdisciplinary perspectives,” said psychology adjunct
Professor Dahlia Zaidel in an e-mail interview.

In Zaidel’s course, Honors Collegium 64: Neuroscience and
Psychology of Art and Biology of Aesthetics, students learn about
art and the brain from neuroscientific and biological viewpoints.
Archaeology, anthropology and art history are all incorporated into
the class. Surely some students take the class because it truly
interests them. Yet, for many College Honors Program students, the
classes, however interesting, are simply taken to fulfill

“I’ve taken two Honors Collegium classes,”
Hirsch said. “They were so easy. Ridiculously easy ““ I
barely learned anything. One of them had five books and the paper
topic was on a chapter from one book and that’s all I

Hirsch said he looks at his participation in the College Honors
Program as a resume builder.

“I don’t think its going to get me a job, but
it’s on my resume,” Hirsch said.

Elizabeth Berman, a former political science student who
graduated in 2004 from UCLA with the College Honors designation on
her diploma, said she does not think being in the program will help
her get a job after she graduates from the USC School of Law, and
she does not think being in the program helped her get into law

“It’s noted on my resume, but no one outside of
academia knows what it is unless you explain it,” she

Second-year psychobiology student Annie Postolov, who is taking
part in the College Honors Program, will also note her
participation in the program on her resume and graduate school
applications, yet is unsure of any effect that might have.

“I did it because I thought it would look better when it
came to applications for medical school,” Postolov said.
“I’ve heard that’s not true, but I figured if you
are in the program it could be helpful.”

So if being in the College Honors Program doesn’t help you
get into graduate school or a job, maybe the priority enrollment is
the real plus. After all, that is why several students said they
wanted to participate in the program.

“The original main benefit was priority enrollment,”
Hirsch said. “That never came in handy because they have a
cap during priority and your time is random. By the time I had
priority the classes were half full.”

Some professors who teach Honors Collegium classes are realistic
about their students’ goals.

“There are some … normal cases and some who
couldn’t spell names of authors we had,” Germanic
languages professor Robert Kirsner said.

Assistant Vice Provost for Honors G. Jennifer Wilson said that
around 500 students graduate with the diploma seal each year.
Overall there are about 5,000 students in the program.

“The biggest attrition is at the end of the first
year,” said Wilson, who directs the Honors Program.
“Students find it harder than they anticipated or they get
pulled away.”

Or maybe many students decide that despite offering a rich
academic opportunity, the College Honors Program hasn’t
allowed them to reap the benefits that they expected from the
program in the first place.

E-mail Miller at [email protected].

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