The origins of University-wide honors at Penn State go back to the mid 1970s, when faculty and administrators observed that Penn State had fewer high-achieving students than its peer institutions. The "Penn State Scholars" pre-college enrichment program (1975) was an early response to the problem, but it was widely accepted that only a true honors program could achieve the desired outcome. As Paul Axt, Professor of Mathematics and founding director of the University Scholars Program (USP) succinctly noted, "One of the things most needed by Penn State's academically superior students is simply more of them."
In September 1979, Axt was chosen as director of the program a full year before it was to be inaugurated. He visited several leading honors programs around the country, and after extensive consultations with Penn State faculty-especially in those seven departments which already had recognized honors programs-Axt produced a plan that was approved by the University Faculty Senate in the spring of 1980.
Looking at the original framework, which Axt designed for the USP, it's striking how prominent the original components and vision are today. The USP was conceived as a faculty-based "advising-intensive program" that would be open to students in all majors at all locations. The annual academic plan, the honors course option (originally called honors supplements), senior thesis requirements, and the possibility of entry into the program at multiple points, are a few other examples.
The official inauguration of the USP took place on October 8, 1980 in Schwab Auditorium, with an address by Ernest Boyer, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, welcoming 300 freshmen and sophomores to the program. Dr. Axt observed in his first-year report that "many of the classes produced an experience in the joy of learning and teaching which neither professors nor students will forget."
By fall 1981, the USP had a total of 800 active students, and by the mid 1980s the number was up to 1400. While the outcomes of successful Scholars were uniformly impressive, the rate of attrition from the program was higher than anyone had expected (although, in fact, it was not much different from other honors programs nationwide). Over the late 1980s a number of steps were taken to improve retention. First, a full-time honors recruitment coordinator was appointed, and a University-wide Committee on Recruiting Academically Superior Students was established. Second, a new selection process was instituted for incoming freshmen Scholars that replaced exclusive use of high school grades and SAT scores with a full application including essays and teacher recommendations. Third, a substantial Academic Excellence Scholarship (AES) was established in 1985 to attract high-quality applicants, and in 1989 the renewal of the AES was linked to continuing membership in the USP. Taken together, these measures reduced attrition rates to the very small numbers Penn State expected.
The establishment of Atherton Hall as Scholars Housing at University Park in 1984 marked a new phase in the development of the USP. Within a few years over 400 Scholars were living in Atherton, and eventually parts of Beaver and McKean Halls were designated as Scholars Housing as well. The residential component has always been important in the cultivation of an "honors community," especially since Penn State's honors program includes students from the widest possible range of majors, with no core curriculum to bring them together in the classroom. From the beginning an active program of speakers, cultural presentations, and purely social events has made Scholars Housing the housing of choice for Scholars at University Park.
By the tenth anniversary of the USP in 1990, Penn State could take pride in a mature and highly regarded honors program. But there was concern about whether the University could afford a program with 1600 students, without skimping on the promises of individualized attention and access to faculty. An external review committee suggested that the program be reduced in size, and AES grants were in fact reduced from 260 to 220 entering students per year. This brought the size of the program down to 1450 students by 1994.
In fall 1996, newly appointed President Graham B. Spanier proposed a substantial increase in the size of the program. This proposal carried many challenges: How to double the applicant pool without a decline in quality? How to maintain access to Honors courses and other special opportunities for a far larger group of students? Where would they all live? These and other questions were much discussed in fall 1996, but the creation of an "Honors College" seemed "years away," in the words of a Collegian article from earlier that year.
Of course, that prospect proved far closer than most anyone could have imagined. On September 12, 1997, President Spanier accepted the magnificent gift of $30 million from William A. and Joan Schreyer towards the founding of the Schreyer Honors College. The mission of honors education was enlarged from simply recruiting excellent students and providing them with enriched learning opportunities, to a comprehensive program that prepares students to make an important difference in the world. The college is also charged to assist in course development and innovations in partnership with the Schreyer Institute for Innovation in Learning, and promotes a global perspective and leadership development across the Penn State community. In March 1998, Cheryl Achterberg was appointed as the founding dean of The Schreyer Honors College.
The growth of The Schreyer Honors College since fall 1997 has been remarkable. Enrollment was capped at 1800, so as not to dilute the opportunities provided by the college. At the same time, more honors courses are offered than ever before. About 200 Schreyer Scholars per year pursue education, research, service, or internships abroad with the financial assistance of the Schreyer Ambassador Travel Grant program. A number of new service and leadership initiatives are now underway, in venues ranging from the small Pennsylvania town of Mount Union to southern India. Summer internships and scholarships have increased more than eight-fold. Scholars Housing has been revitalized with the consolidation of previously dispersed residence areas into Simmons and Atherton Halls. Most visibly, the transfer of the college offices from the Willard Building to Atherton Hall has laid the groundwork for a fully-realized "living-learning environment."
The future is bright. Penn State provides a comprehensive honors education unique in the United States. Over 85% of its graduates go on to professional or graduate school within three years, many are published before graduation, and all have research experience or have produced a significant creative work. Keep your eyes open for Schreyer Honors College alumni, and celebrate their accomplishments as well as Penn State's in the last twenty years. Honors education has changed the face of Penn State, and the Schreyer Honors College builds on a proud tradition. Its impact will be felt nationwide, and beyond.