UMass Amherst Opening Doors to New Honors College

AMHERST, Mass. - The University of Massachusetts opens the doors of its new honors college this fall. Commonwealth College will allow highly motivated students to study in smaller classroom settings, and to work closely with the University''s top research faculty, according to Linda Nolan, director of the Honors Program.

Commonwealth College, funded by the Legislature, through the state Board of Higher Education, will be built on the foundation of the Honors Program, which currently serves 1,900 students. To qualify for admission to the college, students will have to meet the same rigorous standards already in place for honors students. These include maintaining a grade point average of at least 3.2 and taking a minimum of six academically intensive honors courses before graduating. In addition, students entering the college directly from high school must score a combined 1300 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test and rank in the top 10 percent of their class. UMass officials expect the college''s enrollment to eventually reach 2,500.

Nolan stresses that the new college will benefit UMass students as a whole. "While the college will serve the most academically motivated and advanced students, the repercussions of its presence on campus will be felt throughout the University," she says. "Not only will the college enhance the worth of a UMass degree for all University students, it will also bring a number of distinguished visiting faculty to campus, faculty who will teach non-honors as well as honors students."

Nolan also points out that while qualified first-year students can enroll in Commonwealth College right out of high school, non-honors upper class students will have the ability to transfer into the college during their academic careers by meeting the college''s GPA requirements. In this way, she explains, the college will serve as a motivational force to raise students to the highest levels of their abilities while at the University.

Nolan says that the creation of Commonwealth College will help the University stay competitive in the changing educational landscape. She says that several of the leading public universities in the country, such as Pennsylvania State and Michigan State universities, have established honors colleges. By offering an intensive learning experience and prestigious credentials, these colleges help students to better compete in the marketplace when they graduate, she says.

In fact, Nolan says, the University has been gradually building its Honors Program over the past few years in an effort to keep pace with this trend in higher education. "The creation of Commonwealth College is more akin to a leap forward than it is to a change in direction," says Nolan. "While there were only 550 students in the program in 1992, in the fall of 1998 that figure will have almost tripled, rising to more than 1,900."

Commonwealth College students will have the opportunity to share residential halls in the Orchard Hill area at the east end of campus, and the University hopes to be able to build academic facilities next to the buildings in the future, according to Nolan.

On top of the academic benefits, Nolan also believes Commonwealth College will generate funding for the University by creating pride among alumni. "If we have a good reputation and show we are moving ahead, people will support us," she says. "Everyone likes to get behind a winning team."

While some students might fear the extra work involved in entering Commonwealth College, Nolan stresses that the benefits far outweigh the risks. She says that employers seek out students who take on such challenges. Moreover, she adds that students will be supported through the individualized attention they will receive from advisors and the smaller student/teacher ratio.

"The mission of UMass is to serve the citizens of the commonwealth in general," Nolan says. "With Commonwealth College, we will reach out to academically motivated students across the state. In the process we''ll show that UMass has always been a place where some of the best and brightest can achieve."

* Academic Philosophy: The primary educational objective of Commonwealth College is to provide the foundation for successful life-long learning, according to Norman Aitken, deputy provost at UMass. Aitken says, the college will nurture love of learning, develop critical thinking, and encourage creativity, initiative, collaboration, and independent thought. Commonwealth College believes these outcomes are best achieved by encouraging students to pursue independent inquiry as the core of their undergraduate experience, according to Aitken. In addition, the college believes that its students need to develop oral and written communication skills, collaborative work and study habits, a breadth of knowledge in the liberal arts, and a depth of knowledge in a specialized discipline or integrated disciplines.

* History: The Honors Program began operations in 1962. In the past 35 years, it has grown from fewer than a dozen students and staff members, to one of the largest programs of its kind in the country and the largest in Massachusetts, according to program director Linda Nolan. Seeing the national trend toward honors colleges in higher education, and the strong honors background at UMass, the state Board of Higher Education voted unanimously in June 1997 to establish Commonwealth College in fall 1998, Nolan says.

* Students: Commonwealth College will include nearly 1,900 students presently on campus when it begins operations in the fall. In fall 1999, a freshman class of approximately 500 students will also enter the college. The vast majority of these students will be from high schools around Massachusetts. The college hopes to recruit the best high school students from across the commonwealth and to create a student body which matches the ethnic composition of the state, says Aitken. Over the next several years, Commonwealth College is expected to grow to include approximately 2,500 students, Aitken says.

* Faculty: Commonwealth College will draw upon the resources of faculty both at the University and from within the Five College community, according to Nolan. In addition, visiting professors will be brought to the campus from some of the finest universities in the country, and students will have the opportunity to study with other faculty in programs abroad.

* Qualifications: Students entering Commonwealth College directly from high school will be required to have a combined Scholastic Aptitude Test score of at least 1300, and to rank in the top 10 percent of their class, Nolan says. However, any student on campus will be accepted to the college if they achieve a grade point average of 3.2.

* Profile of Fall 1998 Freshman Class: Average SAT 1320. Median GPA 3.9. All are within top 8 percent of their class.

* Costs: Students entering Commonwealth College will pay the same tuition and fees as other students at the University.

* Facilities: Students in Commonwealth College will have the opportunity to live together in special residential halls in Orchard Hill on the east end of campus. In the future, Nolan says, the University also hopes to create a separate academic facility in Orchard Hill near the residence halls.

* Collaboration: Working with presidents of state and community colleges, Commonwealth College will be part of a collaborative effort to increase options within the state public higher education system. This collaboration will involve numerous initiatives including: conferences on teaching honors courses, a distance-learning program, and the annual Undergraduate Research Conference to be held at the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston April 30, 1999.

Commonwealth College at the University of Massachusetts is leading a ground-breaking effort to link public institutions of higher education across the state in collaborative honors classes employing the latest technology.

Students at institutions participating in the program will be able to enroll in distance-learning classes to be taught by a team of faculty from across the commonwealth. While the students will attend traditional lectures taught by faculty at their home institutions, they will also receive input from faculty at other campuses provided through video presentations, the Internet, e-mail, and other hi-tech methods.

"The response to this project has been overwhelmingly positive in terms of both the number of participating institutions and the enthusiasm of the faculty," says the project''s director, UMass Amherst deputy provost Norman Aitken. "As far as I know, this is the first collaborative distance-learning program offered in the United States which includes all sectors of public higher education."

Four collaborative courses will be offered during the 1998-99 academic year: "Poets in Massachusetts," "Environmental Issues in Massachusetts," "Ethnicity in Massachusetts," and "Business and Economic Issues in Massachusetts." A total of 19 institutions will participate in these classes including: community colleges (Mt. Wachusett, Cape Cod, Holyoke, Massasoit, Middlesex, Quinsigamond, Berkshire, Bristol, Greenfield, and Massachusetts Bay); state colleges (Bridgewater, Fitchburg, Worcester, Framingham, and Westfield); and four UMass campuses (Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, and Lowell). The courses were developed over the summer with a performance enhancement grant from the state Board of Higher Education.

"The goal of the program is to expose students to the combined expertise of faculty from across the system, giving them opportunities far greater than any one campus could offer," says Aitken.

In "Environmental Issues in Massachusetts," for instance, students will be able to learn about a variety of issues from the combined faculty, including: brownfield restoration in Greenfield from UMass Amherst environmental science professor Guy Lanza; open space redevelopment in Boston from UMass Boston professor Roger Wrubel; and PCB control in Pittsfield from Berkshire Community College professor Charles Weinstein.

Similarly, in "Poets in Massachusetts" the combined faculty will be able to expose students to almost every major poet produced by the state. This means students will not only learn about Emily Dickinson from Massasoit Community college professor Carol Sokolowski, and Sylvia Plath from UMass Dartmouth professor Richard Larschan, they will also be able to study the work of Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, from UMass Amherst professor William Moebius, and interact with contemporary poets such as Martin Espada, who also teaches at UMass Amherst.

By focusing on issues specific to Massachusetts, the classes will be united thematically as well as technologically, says Aitken. "This is a win-win situation for everybody," Aitken says. "We''re using the latest technology to expand our capabilities and to reach out to Massachusetts residents with our services."

Descriptions of the courses follow:

Poets in Massachusetts (Fall 1998) - An examination of the poets and poetry of Massachusetts, giving special attention to the influence of the natural, social, and cultural landscape of Massachusetts in both the poets'' lives and works. While poets writing in English, from Emily Dickinson to Sylvia Plath, will figure prominently, immigrant poets writing in languages other than English and non-traditional poets such as Dr. Seuss will also be discussed.

Environmental Issues in Massachusetts (Fall 1998) - An interdisciplinary examination of environmental problems affecting the people and state of Massachusetts. Students will examine the historical, economic, and policy aspects of local, state, and global environmental issues relevant to the commonwealth. The course emphasizes independent and group inquiry, active learning, and participation in a project dealing with local environmental problems.

Ethnicity in Massachusetts (Spring 1999) - This course will use a case study approach to explore the following topics: immigration; acculturation and assimilation; technology and work; religious identity and practice; and the experiences of select ethnic communities such as African Americans, Cambodians, Irish, Puerto Ricans, and Wampanoag. This course will also focus on the key cultural, economic, and political issues of specific ethnic communities, and how these diverge from both media representations and political rhetoric.

Business and Economic Issues in Massachusetts (Spring 1999) - An interactive, multimedia inquiry into challenges and opportunities facing the commonwealth. Honors students from a variety of disciplines will join in project teams with faculty, executives, and government officials. Together they will address vital issues including globalization, industrial change, technology, human resources, and the role of government in business. Final project presentations will be addressed to key decision-makers.