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An elite education at public school; Honors Program at College Park aims for top students


COLLEGE PARK -- Acceptance letters went out this month to high school seniors who will make up a college freshman class with average test scores in the top 5 percent and enough advanced courses that their grade point average exceeds 4.0.

The 700 students will not be attending an Ivy League school. They will be enrolled in the highly competitive Honors Program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

With the high cost of private schools driving more top-flight students to state universities, virtually all major public schools are responding with programs to challenge the best and the brightest. UMCP's Honors Program, in particular, is receiving national recognition for delivering a top-rated education at a bargain price.

The program is a key element in the campus' much larger ambitions to move into the upper echelons of public universities nationally, in part by trying to create small-college-type intellectual communities within a big university campus.

The College Park program was featured in last year's U.S. News and World Report guide to colleges and given a top ranking in the 1994 book "Ivy League Programs at State School Prices."

It has had a dramatic impact on the campus, raising the quality of UMCP's freshman classes.

"It's a very highly regarded program," says Robert Spurrier, an Oklahoma State professor who heads the National College Honors Council. "College Park is one of the growing number of state schools to realize you can offer a very high quality of education to top students with the selling point that they will pay state tuition."

Katie Venanzi, a senior biology major from Towson, went to UMCP particularly because of the Honors Program. Recruited at many schools to play soccer, she had applications out to Yale, Duke and George Washington -- among others -- when she was accepted to the Honors Program.

"Once I came down here and visited and saw what this program was about, I wanted to come here," she says. "I didn't even pay attention to those other applications."

With top students like Venanzi, that's happening more and more -- in large part, says Maynard Mack, the Honors Program director, because of the "sticker shock" from the four-year tab at elite schools, which can total more than $120,000, vs. $45,000 for a Marylander at UMCP.

The average SAT score of freshman Honors students at College Park has risen from 1,340 in 1996 to 1,410 last fall. "This is about as strong an entering class as you'll find anywhere in the country," Mack says.

Douglas Lewis, curator of sculpture at the National Gallery of Arts and an adjunct faculty member in the program, adds: "I have taught at Yale, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Berkeley, Bryn Mawr and Georgetown. Apart from a couple of graduate students at Berkeley and maybe one at Hopkins, these are consistently the best students I have ever taught."

That's having a big impact on the campus as a whole.

Add the 700 freshmen in the Honors Program to the 900 entering a second program for slightly less highly ranked students -- called College Park Scholars -- and they make up more than 40 percent of the campus' freshman class of 3,850 students.

The effect on UMCP's overall freshman class has been dramatic. Linda M. Clement, director of undergraduate admissions, reports that in 1988, 193 freshman had scored higher than 1,300 on the SATs. By 1998, such freshmen numbered 1,061.

Average high school GPAs for the entire UMCP freshman class show a similar trend -- 2.98 in 1988, 3.45 in 1996 and 3.54 in 1998.

'Very best students'

"These programs set the pace for the entire undergraduate education experience here," says University Provost Gregory Geoffrey. "They attract to the campus the very best students and their presence enriches all the students."

Mark Tervakoski, a junior from Silver Spring, is the type of elite student drawn by the Honors Program. He had his heart set on Duke or the University of Virginia, but then was accepted to the Honors Program and awarded a Banneker/Key scholarship that pays all his college costs for four years.

"My parents said I was coming here," Tervakoski says, because of the savings. "I was upset. But it's been a wonderful experience."

On paper, that experience looks like a modest addition to students' transcripts.

Its only requirements are five semester-long Honors courses -- three of them seminars open only to Honors students -- during the first two years of school and a special one-credit course taught by upper-level Honors students. Students who maintain a 3.2 GPA receive an honors citation at graduation.

But beyond these requirements, the Honors Program functions as an intellectual community within the larger university. "The Honors Program is sort of like our Greek organization," says Chad Milan, a sophomore from Annapolis, likening it to an academic fraternity.

The drive behind the Honors Program is a concept developed by history professor Ira Berlin when he was dean of undergraduate studies in 1993-1994. "What we talked about was 'making the big store small,' " Berlin says. "Like any big research university, this school has more resources than a student could ever use. But they don't know how to access them."

Berlin, teaching at Yale this semester, says this is particularly important at a state school where many students are the first generation of their families to attend college.

Venanzi credits the program's success in part to its living arrangements, which feature entire dorms or dorm floors exclusively for Honors students. Her dorm room is in Anne Arundel Hall, headquarters of the program. "You're living and learning together," she says. "People like to have fun and party. But we know when it's time to hit the books."

The Honors seminars are an attraction as well.

Students talk with enthusiasm about getting to go to the off-limits storage area of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum during a course on the history of flight, seeing "Othello" at the Kennedy Center and getting the cast to come to a Shakespeare seminar, and taking freshman courses with top professors in small classes.

'Develop a rapport'

Says third-year Honors student James Bond, from Silver Spring: "You get a chance to develop a rapport with professors early in your academic career."

Presiding over all this is director Mack, a Shakespeare scholar who is a small college president, cheerleader, den mother and teacher to the Honors students. "Our goal is to get the students to become reflective learners from day one," Mack says. "That doesn't happen with all of them. But when it does happen, it's very exciting. Students really take ownership of their education."

The Honors Program has spawned a second college within the university for slightly less high-ranking students. Five years ago, the school created the College Park Scholars program. This year's 900 Scholars come in with an average SAT score of about 1,260 and a high school GPA above 3.8.

This fall, the Scholars will occupy their own quadrangle of low-rise dormitories. The students live with others who have signed up for the same concentration in one of 10 interdisciplinary themes -- arts, life sciences, international studies or public leadership, for example. Often, these themes are outside the students' majors.

"We had an organ-playing engineer," Scholars director Katherine McAdams says. "These are not cloistered scholars, they are very community-oriented people. They are going to be high school principals and bank vice presidents who coach their kids' soccer teams. They are the people who are going to make the world run."

Within these "small stores" are a couple of boutiques, including the Gemstone program for about 150 Honors students and a humanities Honors program for about 40 students.

Run from the engineering school, the Gemstone program forms teams of 10 or so students who work together for their four undergraduate years on a social problem -- selected by the students -- with the goal of producing original research at the end of their senior year.

"What employers tell us is that they want people who can think clearly, solve problems and work in teams," says Mack. "That is what Gemstone delivers."

Topics include mass transportation, medical care and nuclear waste disposal. "I'm starting to realize that we are going to come up with something in the end," says Mark Tosso, a sophomore from New Jersey whose group is working on prison reform. "No one knows what that will be, but in the process we are learning so much."

Seeing the difference

Charles F. Wellford, acting graduate dean, is in charge of the Gemstone section on prison reform. On the faculty for more than 25 years, Wellford has seen the difference these high-end programs make -- not just on students but on a faculty that once gave minimal attention to undergraduate education.

"What I tell my colleagues on the faculty," Wellford says, "is that teaching these students reminds me why I got into this profession."

Pub Date: 2/22/99

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