Southern Oregon University's new Honors College program aimed to attract the best and the brightest students with offers of free tuition and intellectual discourse.
That goal seems to be playing out as planned for the Honors College's first crop of 25 students, who arrived in September.
"I applied to SOU as my backup school, but now I'm really glad that I'm here," said student Hannah VanBrunt.
The 18-year-old freshman said she would have liked to go to Santa Clara University or Lewis and Clark College, but chose SOU because of the Honors College, which offered to cover her tuition if she agreed to keep her grades and school involvement high.
VanBrunt and other Honors College applicants had to be hard-working before arriving at SOU, needing a cumulative 3.75 GPA in high school, high SAT or ACT scores and recommendations from former academic advisors.
"We're trying to attract students who might not come here otherwise, and we want to keep them here," said Ken Mulliken, who arrived at SOU in June as the new Honors College director.
The college's first cohort had an average high school GPA of 3.84.
Just a few days into her second quarter at SOU, VanBrunt is already working to form a speech and debate club on campus, has organized a campus poetry slam and decided she'll major in political science and minor in gender studies.
Mulliken said the program has taken cues from other honors colleges and from regional and national honors college organizations.
Funding is generated through private donations, the SOU Foundation and SOU's general fund.
Students receive free tuition, but pay for their dorm rooms and some student fees.
Mulliken said the Honors College students will reflect well on the school, and students could offer guidance to others on campus.
"We think they'll have an influence on all the other students at the university," Mulliken said.
In this year's cohort, many of the students were identified as eligible by SOU after they applied to school, and then were asked if they were interested in applying to the Honors College.
As the program expands, Mulliken expects more students to apply directly. The plan is to add a group of 25 students each year, with the college capped at 100 students total.
Freshman Honors College student Elinor Henderson said she had narrowed her decision on college to SOU and Evergreen College in Washington, but picked SOU in part because of the Honors College.
Originally from Arizona, Henderson went on independent study during her junior year of high school and simultaneously earned an associate's degree from a community college as she was finishing high school.
Henderson plans to double major in anthropology and psychology and major in Spanish.
The cohort's first honors course — a three-part general education class on linguistics — has allowed the students to interact academically and get to know each other better.
"We butt heads, but we appreciate each other's ideas," said Henderson. "It's a linguistics-based class and I feel like that has a lot to do with any major."
By the time they graduate, students will have taken 50 credits in honors classes out of 180 total credits needed for graduation.
Mulliken said honors classes will have high student engagement, meaning it's assumed each student will read the material and be prepared for a robust discussion before coming to class, more like graduate school.
"Every student is expected to be prepared. Everyone is involved, and they have questions," Mulliken said.
Students have a variety of required events and projects to complete while in the Honors College — including seeing three Oregon Shakespeare Festival plays each year and meeting with a major- specific mentor from the community.
As the Honors College expands, Mulliken said, he is working out a partnership with Tennessee State University to set up an exchange program for students and another partnership with Oregon State University that would send students to Portugal with Habitat for Humanity.
Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.