Honors College dean says priority enrollment is critical


Honors College Dean Nicola Foote told the Senate Student Admissions, Aid and Affairs committee that having priority enrollment for Honors College students is “absolutely critical to our national and international formal recognition,” and is a prerequisite for honors rankings and for recognition by the National Collegiate Honors Council.

But she is open to compromises or “edits” to help ease pressure on departments who have graduating seniors who are not able to take required classes because they are already filled by Honors College students.

Marc Harding, Pitt’s chief enrollment officer, reminded the group that, “We are competing for students, and it’s a very competitive marketplace. There are certainly criteria that we need to meet if we want to be a ranked honors college. … I did want to remind folks that Ohio State, Penn State, UVA, UNC–Chapel Hill, Rutgers, Delaware, not everyone, but most of our competitors are offering priority registration.”

“Graduating seniors absolutely have to have priority,” said Valerie Oke, senior lecturer and assistant chair in biological sciences. “There’s been a commitment for them and then all of a sudden, they have to choose not to graduate or they’re not graduating with something that they’ve been working for and they’re missing one class.”

Sybil Streeter, co-chair of the committee, said her department — psychology — has limited access to upper-level courses to psychology majors to try to prevent this problem.

Currently, about 15 percent of undergraduates are in the Honors College. Changes were made in 2019 that require these students to essentially do two majors — honors requirements plus a primary major. Foote noted that these students also often try to complete certificates or minors.

Ellen Kelsey, a lecturer and undergraduate advisor in biological sciences, said that students without priority enrollment who are trying to complete certificates or general education requirements often run into problems.

“I have a student who was a senior in the fall. She had enrollment on the first day of enrollment, and was unable to get a class she needed for her certificate,” Kelsey said. “I pulled the rosters. There were two sections, and out of 60 total seats, only seven of them went to non-honors students.”

Foote said one way they hope to address these problems is by hiring honors-specific advisers in the fall who will be focused on degree progression.

Jessica Wandelt, a lecturer and undergraduate advisor in biological sciences, said that would help guide students to appropriate level classes. “If you want to take this lab, great, but you have to wait until you’re a junior.”

Another suggestion was to let Honors College students have priority enrollment before the other members of their class, but not over students who are further along in their degree. Or students who plan to graduate within the semester, regardless of honors status, could have priority.

Foote said they definitely want to prohibit students from staying in the honors program so they can keep getting priority enrollment, even though they know they won’t be able to complete all the honors requirements.

“That concerns us just as much as it does all of you,” Foote said. “That’s absolutely not what honors is for; it’s not a transactional, you got this and we give you this. It’s about a holistic approach to student success.”

If academic advisers hear about students who are doing this, they should contact Dave Hornyak, assistant dean for the Honors College. He then works with the student to see if they are still interested in the honors program. He makes them create a pathway to complete their degree with the honors requirement.  “I found that when students realize that they have to do that, they back out.”

Having in-house Honors College advisers will make sure these pathways are created early on in the process, not just when problems arise on a case-by-case basis.

“There won’t be such a sense of free for all — just go and get miscellaneous honors classes —  but there’ll be a really clear sense of I’m supposed to go in this place at this time in my pathway,” Foote said.

The committee hopes to meet with the registrar, Jonathan Helm, and Joe McCarthy, vice provost for undergraduate studies, next month to see what steps can be taken to ease this problem.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 724-244-4042.


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