Ambiguous Requirements in the Yeshiva College Honors Program
There is a disconnect between the students and the administration about Yeshiva College’s Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program.
Somewhere between 150 and 200 men on the Wilf Campus are current Yeshiva College honors students. They all demonstrated sufficient academic success and intellect in high school to merit anywhere from $10,000 to full academic scholarships.
In addition to monetary benefits, the Honors Program offers its students special courses, lectures, and cultural outings, all of which typically boast low student-faculty ratios and high academic rigor. The Honors Program also makes several demands of its students. It is from these requirements that our disconnect between honor students and the administration has sprouted and continues to grow.
Uncontroversially, honors students must maintain a GPA of at least 3.4 to keep up their merit scholarships. It is likewise undisputed that a student officially graduates from the Honors Program only if he completes 108 credits in residence, takes six honors electives, and writes a senior honors thesis.
But there is grey area too. May a student enjoy a scholarship from the honors program and yet choose to not graduate with Honors? In fact, a large percentage of Yeshiva College honors students do not graduate from the Honors Program. Instead, they operate as honors students for three years, accrue 84 on-campus credits and 128 total credits (typically 32 off-campus credits are awarded for a year of learning in Israel), and then receive a diploma awarding them regular, non-Honors Yeshiva College degrees. These students benefit from significant merit scholarships, but do not write senior theses.
The nature of the thesis requirement is vague. YU’s website states that “the culmination of the honors program is a senior honors thesis.” Regarding the scholarships, the website explains that they “last for as many years as students are enrolled and remain in good standing in the program.” These formulations leave open to interpretation whether honors students stand to lose their scholarships if they indicate intent to graduate without Honors, or whether the senior thesis is merely an option that students can forgo, along with the Honors title on their diploma, if they so desire. No applications or signed agreements are any more specific on this matter.
This past January, Professor Shalom Holtz took over as Director of the Honors Program. In April, he sent an email to honors students eligible to graduate in 2018. After reminding them of the requirement to complete six honors courses and to write a thesis, his email concluded: “Students in your situation face the tempting prospect of taking the merit-based financial aid without any intention of completing the program. Be advised that acting on this temptation violates the terms of your award and may result in its termination for your final semester(s) on campus.”
That week in April, I heard many students express anxiety about Professor Holtz’s email. Some of these students were already finishing their second year in Yeshiva College, set on an academic path toward graduation the next year—a path they believed to be acceptable. The email’s implicit demands were by no means insignificant: either stay another year and write a thesis or pay a retroactive fine of up to $40,000 for a third year on campus.
Holtz sent a similar email just this past week to fourth-year honors students who have yet to propose a thesis topic. This reminder email concluded: “Please be aware that if you intend to graduate without writing a thesis, you will have dropped out of the Honors Program and your merit-based funding may be suspended for Spring, 2018.” Once again, there was palpable confusion on Wilf Campus.
I recently decided to confirm on my own what I sensed to be the student pulse. I surveyed over 150 current Yeshiva College honors students, asking them if they plan to write a thesis, and, if not, why. I also left room for additional comments. The survey generated 55 responses from students spanning nearly all Yeshiva College majors and class statuses (18 first-years, 17 second-years, 16 third-years, and 4 fourth-years).
Roughly half of those who responded indicated an intention to complete the Honors Program and a senior thesis. This corresponds to what I gathered from many conversations with administrators and others involved with the Honors Program to be the amount of students who matriculate with honors and wind up completing the Honors Program (estimates ranged anywhere from 20% to 50%).
More importantly, the majority of students who filled out my survey—including those who themselves intend to write a thesis—believe that it is a permissible course of action to graduate in three years and forgo the Honors title on the diploma. As for historical trends, I reached out to Professor Holtz, Professor Gabriel Cwilich (the old Honors Program director), the deans, the Office of Admissions, and the Office of Institutional Research & Assessment for the number of honors students who completed the Honors Program and the number of those who supposedly violated their scholarship terms and did not. None of them were able to offer any concrete data.
The historical practice and current student sentiment is thus clear. Professor Holtz, in conversations that I had with him about his email, acknowledged that many honors students have not completed the program, and told me that he and the administration hope to begin a trend that will increase the percentage of students who finish the Honors Program and write a senior thesis. Dean Karen Bacon, the Dean of Yeshiva College, expressed to me as well that she believes that the “take the money and run” course of action is unethical. She pointed to the S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program at Stern College, where nearly 100% of students—because of strong oversight and the option to finish in three years—complete the program. In short, the administration believes that, despite recent practices and current opinions, Yeshiva College honors students have a responsibility to complete the program to the best of their abilities.
Several students in the survey’s “additional comments” section, as well as others in person, told me that representatives from the Office of Admissions explicitly told them in high school, as one student succinctly put it, “that [benefitting from the Honors Program but graduating without Honors] was a legitimate plan of action.”
It is worth considering why honors students might desire to graduate from the program in three years. In this regard, the second most common sentiment expressed in my survey was that, as another student described, “The program deliberately sets the rules so that it’s virtually impossible to graduate with Honors with three years on campus, despite having a full year of credits from Israel.” Indeed, graduating from the Honors Program requires 108 on-campus credits, which is impossible to complete in six semesters given the school’s limit of 17.5 credits per semester. This student added, “I think this is unfair as honors students deserve to graduate from their program with four years of credits like any other YU student. Nor would staying three years on campus preclude writing a thesis.”
If the senior thesis in fact represents what the Honors Program is all about—if YU grants generous scholarships for this very purpose—then the administrators of the program should make its requirements crystal clear. Sending ominous emails serves only to worry students. These emails also damage the credibility of the Honors Program because, in practice, the Office of Student Finance will not fine students who drop out of Honors at the eleventh hour. Moreover, it is wrong to force current students who have been grandfathered into the implicitly condoned system to write a thesis.
Instead, for a new trend to begin, the administration—together with the Office of Admissions—must fix the system starting with current high school seniors. New firm rules of expectations and potential punishments for non-participation can, with effort and clarity, become the norm within three or four years. In considering updated formulations, administrators should take students’ concerns—particularly about residency requirements—seriously.
Or perhaps the senior thesis does not represent what the Honors Program is all about. Perhaps it is a nice project for some, but isn’t right for all honors students.
Long-term thinking perfuses Yeshiva University air these days. Let’s make the Honors Program a reason for students to study at Yeshiva University, not an inconvenience that turns them away.