Chattanooga State launches honors college that could help grads go on to 4-year schools

photo Vanessa Jackson works at a table in the Chattanooga State Community College library Thursday. The school is preparing to launch a new honors program to serve high-achieving freshmen.

COLLEGE WITHIN A COLLEGE• An honors college at Chattanooga State for students with ACT scores of 27 or higher and a grade-point average of at least 3.6.• Students would enroll as a cohort, take newly designed honors courses and in two years transfer to a partner university.• The program will be funded primarily through private donations.• It is estimated to cost $192,000 a year to provide scholarships and enrichment opportunities for the group of students.• Only faculty with doctorates will teach the courses.• The pilot program is being launched this fall with history and Spanish.• The goal is for students to be able to transfer as juniors and graduate debt free.Source: Chattanooga State Community CollegeFAST FACTS• From 1984 through 2002, the share of transfer students among entering student class at highly selective institutions nationwide declined from 10.5 percent to 5.7 percent.• 75 percent of community college transfers to selective four-year institutions complete their degrees; that number increases to 80 percent or 90 percent for students who transfer to the most highly selective institutions.• In fall 2002, the estimated number of two-year transfers entering elite institutions in the United States was a little more than 11,000 students.• Of these 11,000, as few as 1,000 were students from socio-economically disadvantaged households.Source: Transfer Access to Elite Colleges and Universities in the United States: Threading the Needle of the American Dream

There are students at Chattanooga State Community College with grade-point averages and ACT scores high enough to enroll at essentially any school they want, but for one reason or another they choose to stay closer to home.

Chattanooga State wants to make sure they are not being shortchanged.

So the college is piloting an honors college program -- College Within a College -- this fall with 16 students who will first participate on a part-time basis. The goal is to implement the program fully by fall 2013.

When all elements of the program are in place, 25 students with ACT scores of at least 27 and GPAs of 3.6 would enroll in honors courses at Chattanooga State with the goal for them to graduate debt-free with a bachelor's degree from a selective private school.

So far, partnerships have been formed with Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee and Berry and Morehouse colleges in Georgia. Discussions continue with other schools, including Vanderbilt and Belmont universities in Nashville.

The schools still are discussing whether students would get automatic admission and what type of financial aid package they would be offered.

But one thing is clear: The program will offer Chattanooga State honors students opportunities that very few graduates of two-year programs ever get.

Even though nearly half of all undergraduate students are enrolled in community colleges nationwide -- about 13 million-- fewer than one of every 1,000 goes on to be accepted at the country's most selective private institutions, according to the report "Threading the Needle of the American Dream."

"We have many people in our community who are the first of their family who aspire to go to college, and they might be college ready from point of view from an ACT or SAT score, but do they really know this huge cultural change that's going to occur when they go to an elite school?" asked James Catanzaro, president at Chattanooga State.

"Our idea is to get them ready and offer them two years of their education here which would be every bit an equal to what they would expect at Vanderbilt, Emory, Sewanee or the University of Virginia, for that matter," he said. "While they are here, we would give them special tutors and coaches to make sure they can transition effectively so when they do end up as juniors, they have a high probability of success."

Over the last 10 years, more community colleges have implemented honors programs, but the idea of two-year schools launching honors colleges is relatively new, said Rod Risley, executive director of Phi Theta Kappa, an honor society that serves 1,275 community colleges nationwide and in eight other countries.

What's driving the growth, he said, is the increasing number of first-time college students in community colleges.

"Many community colleges experienced dramatic surges in increases in enrollment the last four or five years, which is not unusual in an economic decline, but when you desegregate the data, what comprises this increase is different this time," he said. "The surge is made up primarily of first-time traditional-age freshmen. Generally it would be returning adults."

Tuition gap

The gap in tuition between community colleges and universities is now about 65 percent, he said, and the savings is pushing some students to choose a two-year college.

Over the last decade, enrollment at Chattanooga State increased about 30 percent to almost 11,000 students. A semester at Chattanooga State costs about $3,000; tuition and fees at Sewanee for 2012-13 is about $35,000.

And community college students still are looking for the complete traditional college experience, which includes honors programs, said Risley.

Chattanooga State isn't the first community college here to have an honors program.

Cleveland State Community College started an honors program for students with a high school GPA of 3.5 or higher and 24 or higher ACT score.

How it will work

Close to 200 students with an ACT score of 27 or higher were enrolled at Chattanooga State this academic year, according to school officials. But because Chattanooga State is an open-access institution -- which means anyone who can pay is accepted -- they also had some students scoring as low as 10 and as high as 31. The average ACT score at Chattanooga State is 18.

Starting this fall, selected Chattanooga State students who meet the GPA and ACT score criteria will enroll in two honors courses, Spanish and history. Two additional courses will be added for the spring semester, and a full honors courseload will be offered by fall 2013, said Karen Payne, associate professor of biology and one of the coordinators of the honors college.

For the pilot program, Holly Reeve, associate vice president of development at Chattanooga State, said the school needs to raise $70,000, which would pay for part-time scholarships for the students and for enrichment opportunities, including trips.

To sustain the program full time for 25 students, Reeve said, the school needs to raise $192,000 a year.

"The only way of getting it off the ground is to run a sustainable fund," Reeve said. "Tuition alone will not pay for it."

But Catanzaro believes the program will be sustainable.

"There's a clear recognition on the part of individuals and businesses in our community that we have to educate at a high level many more young citizens than we have," he said. "In this case there are not going to be any B's or C's in this program; you have to master the subject."

Current Chattanooga State faculty members with doctorates will teach the courses.

Partner logistics

The logistics of the partnerships with four-year schools haven't been finalized yet, but the idea is for students to transfer at the junior level to the private institutions.

The acceptance rate at partner institution the University of the South, also known as Sewanee, is about 60 percent. But Larry Jones, associate dean at Sewanee, said he doesn't see why the honors students from Chattanooga State wouldn't be admitted if they successfully complete the program.

"We are at a place where I think we can work together very well," he said. "The idea we might have additional students or reaching a student population we wouldn't have been reaching otherwise seems great to us."

Last fall, Sewanee received 61 transfer applications, out of which 27 were admitted and 11 enrolled. The school's Office of Admission estimates that, in the past, about one-fourth of transfer applicants have been from community colleges.

At Berry College, about 33 percent of transfer applicants were admitted last fall. Out of 46 students who enrolled that semester, 21 were from two-year schools.

Andrew Bressette, associate provost at the college, said they believe the school will work well with Chattanooga State.

"Great students come from everywhere, and one of the challenges for some of the two-year schools especially is trying to find avenues for their students to be accepted but also trying to find ways that they challenge their students to think beyond what they thought they were capable of," he said.

"If they have partnerships with good schools in the area, it allows many folks possibilities and ways to stretch, and perhaps it will open doors the students wouldn't have thought possible," he added.


Establishing honors programs and partnerships between community colleges and more selective universities is a win-win for everybody, said Risley, with Phi Theta Kappa.

It helps the community college serve its mission of meeting the needs of all students in the community. It helps the students by providing access to a more rigorous program, and it helps the private schools, he said.

Research shows students who start at a community college and transfer to a more selective university do just as well as those who started at the private institution, he said.

"The higher the academic preparedness of the student, the greater likelihood they will be successful in completing a four-year degree," Risley said. "Having these partnerships and discounted tuition at private colleges will give students access to a quality education at a private institutions that otherwise they wouldn't have access to."

But there's also a financial incentive, he added.

"Why would the private college want to do this?" he asked.

"The reasons is the community college transfer student, especially high-ability students, will help fill up junior- and senior-level classes, and while it's partially about equity, to provide access to a diverse student population, it is also revenue driven," he said.

School officials at Berry and Sewanee disagree.

"From my perspective, this isn't because times are rough," said Jones at Sewanee. "It's because suddenly we are waking up. Here is a population that we feel confident can do well, and it's in accord with objectives of institution rather than a source of revenue."

Enrollment at Sewanee decreased in 2010 but jumped back up last year to 1,429 students. The number of first-year students also increased from 2010 to 2011, rising from 401 to 433 students. To increase enrollment, the school implemented several measures, including trimming tuition by 10 percent and freezing tuition for the incoming freshman class.

Berry College has continued to see strong admissions numbers even during the economic slowdown, Bressette said. From 2009 to 2011, enrollment increased from 1,922 to 2,093 students. Total cost of attending the college was $36,448 in fall 2011.

"For us, it is really tied to finding opportunities for students as Martha Berry (the school's founder) tried many years ago," he said. "When we find instances where students and programs really resonate well with our mission, and that we think they can be successful, we are very excited to be part of that process and help students achieve their potential."

All the private colleges in Georgia are working on some agreements to make the transfer of students from two-year schools to four-year schools as easy as possible, he said.

Even though Chattanooga State is the first community college with which Berry has established a partnership, he said the school is also starting a conversation with Georgia Highlands College.