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The Barrett standard

January 1, 2019

In 30 years, ASU’s honors college has established a model for excellence to rival Stanford, MIT and the Ivy League

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Barbara McConnell Barrett dreamed about Arizona since her father traveled West during the Depression as a cowboy.

When she was ready for college, she had a plan — come to Arizona for a semester and then return East to finish her education. She requested catalogs from all three state universities and says “Arizona State’s was the prettiest.”

Today, ASU is also one of the nation’s best, partly because Barrett’s plan happily evaporated after coming to Tempe. “I never left,” she says, “and that was 50 years ago.”

She earned bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees at ASU, becoming the first woman to run for governor in Arizona and the first civilian woman to land an F/A-18 Hornet on an aircraft carrier during a distinguished career that included a stint as U.S. ambassador to Finland.

Fast-forward to 2000. She and husband Craig Barrett, the former CEO of Intel, endowed $10 million to ASU’s honors college, impressed by its success.

The school bearing their name is now renowned as the gold standard of public honors colleges, one to rival Ivy League universities and a model emulated around the world.

Barrett, The Honors College also has been transformed by the vision of ASU President Michael M. Crow and Mark Jacobs, who both left prestigious East Coast schools to create new models at ASU.

“It’s become the crown jewel of the university,” ASU benefactor Tom Lewis says of the honors college.

Culture change

Horseback riders

Barrett welcomes incoming students to the community with a weekend at Camp B in Payson or Camp B-Town in Prescott to connect with new advisers, faculty, peer mentors and one another over glow sticks and s’mores. Photo by Tony Long

ASU’s honors college, established in 1988, had existed for 15 years when Crow first contacted Jacobs about leading it. But, Jacobs admits, “I didn’t know what an honors college was.”

He also didn’t know that would actually help him land the job as dean and serve him well as he remade the school during the last 15 years.

Crow became ASU’s president in 2002, a year before Jacobs arrived, with the idea to create a New American University. Crow had been Columbia University’s executive vice provost and knew that ideas could take root more quickly at ASU without pushing against 350 years of history and tradition.

“He had a vision no one else had,” Jacobs says, which was modeling Barrett as an innovative, interdisciplinary four-year residential college within an 80,000-student public research university.

Jacobs was an associate provost at Swarthmore, a private liberal arts college outside Philadelphia standing on tradition, and resistant to risk and change. Meanwhile, Crow wanted Jacobs to use his own ideas about what worked.

“It’s been exciting for that reason,” Jacobs says.

At first, ASU tried to play up the honors college’s prestige by targeting out-of-state students, but the goal was always to become the top choice for the state’s smartest students. Attracting in-state learners, who pay about one-third the cost of a small private college, makes it more likely they stay in Arizona after graduation.

“We were attempting to alter a culture,” Crow says about the entire university. “I hope the faculty here feel like they can advance any idea.”

Today, two-thirds of Barrett students come from Arizona. ASU and Barrett also produce as many Fulbright scholars as the Ivy League schools, and nearly four of every 10 Barrett alums attend graduate school immediately. About one-third of graduates enter the workforce, grabbing jobs at widely diverse companies such as General Motors, Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks and Google.

“Nobody’s flipping burgers,” Jacobs says.

Students in a lab

Barrett is home to big aspirations. Rachel Geiser (left, laughing with Prathima Harve during their advanced biochemistry class on the Tempe campus) is a senior double majoring in biochemistry and political science with the goal of becoming a surgeon and public health researcher. Photo by Jarod Opperman/ASU

Student focus

Barrett graduates from earlier years almost seem like they don’t recognize the school when they visit today.

“The growth of the organization, the number of students benefitting, the influence on the broader education [at ASU], it’s astounding,” says Christopher Jaap, a 1995 graduate who launched Ridgeline Law Office in San Francisco in 2017 and established a scholarship for ASU honors students with a passion for sustainability. Barrett, he remembers, “opened my mind in a classic liberal arts way.”

Barrett also prides itself on providing a life experience, not just an educational experience. In 2009, the school opened a seven-building, $140 million complex spread over nine acres. Instead of occupying two floors in an existing residence hall, the honors college now owns the southeast corner of the Tempe campus.

This allowed Barrett to not only create its own dorm, where most students spend their first two years, but also honors classrooms, a separate dining hall and a refectory right out of Harry Potter and Hogwarts.

The new campus “took it to a whole other level of interaction for students,” says Kristen Joy Hermann, a senior associate dean for student services at Barrett.

Barrett students now constitute 18 percent of ASU’s freshman class, and they typically take two-thirds of their classes outside the honors college.

It’s all part of the “extra” that students say is one of their favorite aspects of Barrett — an oasis that allows them to find their passion. The whirlwind experience includes participation in everything from conducting original research to meeting personally with international leaders. There’s even a monthly breakfast with Jacobs.

Prospective students have taken note. Over the past 10 years, applications have more than tripled to 4,300 and enrollment jumped from 2,800 to more than 7,200 spread across four metro Phoenix campuses. In just 30 years, Barrett now has more students than Harvard.

The enrollment surge has not lowered academic requirements. Students still need to complete a thesis before they graduate, an unusual undertaking for an undergraduate. But it allows students to compete for various awards they also tend to win.

In 2017, Barrett was one of only four U.S. institutions to graduate Churchill, Marshall and Rhodes scholars in the same academic year. Indeed, over the past 10 years, Barrett has been among the top 10 universities producing Fulbright scholars.

“In the honors world, Barrett really is the gold standard; it’s not just a marketing slogan,” says Nicola Foote, vice dean and the newest member of Barrett’s administration.

ASU swimmers

Barrett is not just about classrooms. Grant House, a sophomore majoring in exercise and wellness, is also an elite-level ASU swimmer. Photo by Jarod Opperman/ASU

Be like Barrett

Prior to this year, Foote had been an associate dean at Florida Gulf Coast University, where she was responsible for building the school’s honors college. She admits to using Barrett’s model to craft her school’s program.

Since stepping onto the ASU Tempe campus in the fall, Foote has seen behind the curtain, experiencing the innovation at Barrett up close and diving into attempts to improve the college.

She has quickly gone from copying Barrett’s methods to hosting tours for teams of officials from around the country who are anxious to emulate Barrett’s gold standard.

That slogan came from an unexpected source — New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who wrote a book in 2015 about the mania surrounding college admissions. In “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” Bruni devoted most of a chapter to ASU and the experiences of two Barrett graduates.

After the book came out, Jacobs contacted Bruni and provided more details about the school. Bruni was so impressed he praised the school in a column: “Barrett combines the intimacy and academically distinguished student body of a Swarthmore with the scale, eclecticism and sprawling resources of a huge university. It’s two experiences in one.”

Bruni also updated his book to include Barrett’s top ranking in John Willingham’s “A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs,” adding Barrett “is widely considered the gold standard.”  

Today, one of Barrett’s biggest fans is Tom Lewis, an Arizona resident and ASU benefactor who graduated from the University of Kentucky.

In 2001, Lewis started a foundation to help fund top students in Arizona. While the recipients could go to any college — and they went as far away as Stanford, Duke and the Ivy League universities — Lewis started noticing more and more ended up at Barrett. “The best students want to go to the best schools,” he says.

So Lewis changed the scholarship, requiring students to attend Barrett. Then in 2015 he donated $23.5 million to create Lewis Honors College at Kentucky.

“It will be very much patterned after Barrett,” Lewis says, admiring not only the quality of Barrett but also how the college helps Arizona retain the state’s best and brightest. “They contribute back to the growth and prosperity of the entire state.”

Students work on a computer

Barrett also provides extensive mentoring. Dwayne Martin-Gomez reviews work with Allison Williams, his Barrett thesis mentor and program manager of research at the ASU Center for Health Promotion. Photo by Jarod Opperman/ASU

Future view

Barrett continues setting the trend for honors colleges at U.S. public universities.

“The tough work of the beginning has been established, but inertia doesn’t help quality,” says Barbara Barrett, currently the chair of Aerospace Corporation.

“Academics aren’t known for being nimble,” she adds. “At the honors college, innovation is the byword.” U.S. News & World Report agrees, ranking ASU as the nation’s most innovative university, ahead of MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon, among others.

Barrett and her husband committed another $2 million to the honors college in 2017, expanding the school’s international program to bring the world to Tempe. In 2018, for example, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the former president of Latvia, was a scholar-in-residence at Barrett, staying on campus for weeks to guest lecture in honors courses and meet with students in small groups.

“We want to get young people familiar with the global environment,” Barbara Barrett says. “This is the world they will be working with in the future.”

Next up: construction of an Honors Student Success Center. As part of the university’s Campaign ASU 2020, Barrett is seeking to build a one-of-a-kind facility among honors colleges, a single building that will house all the services students need under one roof. Plans include advisers, writing center, national scholarship office and more.

Barrett is raising its standard.

Timeline of Barrett events

Written by Wayne D’Orio. D’Orio is an award-winning former editor-in-chief of Scholastic Administrator properties has written about education for The Atlantic, Wired, Pacific Standard and The Hechinger Report.

This story originally appeared in the winter issue of ASU Thrive magazine. Top photo collage by Sarah Horvath, Ellen O’Brien and Jarod Opperman/ASU

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Barrett students share common experiences within unique communities

Barrett honors college at ASU marks 30 years of serving state's top students.
August 15, 2018

Honors college, marking 30 years, grew as ASU's 4 metro Phoenix campuses expanded

A big university offers many opportunities, but it also can be a bit overwhelming. Students who choose one of Arizona State University’s smaller metro Phoenix campuses can still take advantage of the support and nurturing of Barrett, The Honors College wherever they are.

That’s what Dana Miller found when she decided to go to the ASU Polytechnic campus in Mesa.

“I was super shy coming into college, so the idea of being on a massive campus terrified me,” said Miller, a junior majoring in applied biological sciences.

“What I like about Poly is that it’s ASU on a smaller scale, and the nice thing about Barrett here is that it’s even smaller than that. It’s a nice little community.”

ASU’s honors college is marking 30 years. In 1988, the Arizona Board of Regents authorized the creation of the University Honors College at ASU, the first four-year, undergraduate, residential honors college in the United States. This week, Barrett, The Honors College will see more than 2,000 high-achieving students coming to ASU’s four campuses in the Valley.

Mark Jacobs, who has been the dean of the honors college for 15 years, said the staff and faculty work hard to create a nurturing community.

“We talk a lot about the Barrett family,” he said. “There are 125 people across all four campuses, staff and faculty, working for Barrett, which is not so many that we can’t have that family feel.”

The dining hall for Barrett, The Honors College on the Tempe campus. Photo by Jarod Opperman/ASU

Jacobs said that 81 percent of Barrett's 7,200 students are on the Tempe campus. But the program has unique aspects at every location — Tempe, downtown Phoenix, Polytechnic and West.

“As ASU opened other campuses and built them up, Barrett was built with them, and as the four campuses have their own flavor, so does Barrett,” he said.

Bonding over s'mores

The honors students can live together in residential communities — which means a high-rise dorm in downtown Phoenix but a neighborhood of small houses at Polytechnic that used to be military housing when the campus was a base.

All of the Barrett students share the same support system and academic experience. Each takes 36 honors credits, including the two-semester Human Event course during freshman year, and completes a three- or six-credit thesis or creative project.

This month, the Barrett programs at each campus welcomed incoming students in their own way. The Polytechnic, Downtown Phoenix, West, and Tempe programs take their freshmen to camp in Payson or Prescott. There, over glow sticks and s’mores, they connect with advisers, faculty, peer mentors and one another.

Manuel Merino, a junior criminology major, said that Camp B-Town, the camp for Barrett Downtown Phoenix first-year students, is a special memory of his freshman year.

“It’s good to get out of Phoenix, and we did a lot of bonding and activities with our group,” said Merino, who is based at the downtown campus.

Kira Gatewood, senior program coordinator for Barrett in downtown Phoenix, said that the staff at each campus collaborates to make sure Barrett students can make the best of each location.

“We really try to make sure all of our students are going to have an experience that has the same components at every campus,” she said. “And we figure out ways to make that happen in a way that highlights the uniqueness of each campus.”

Gatewood said that the downtown campus capitalizes on its proximity to the heart of city and state government and services.

“We’re an urban campus, and that’s something we’re proud of,” she said.

The location is a boon to the majors there, including journalism, nursing and public service.

Ashley McDonald, a senior, is doing her thesis research on child victims in the criminal justice system and hopes to have a career in the juvenile justice system after she graduates in December.

“Being downtown I’m able to work with Phoenix Police Department, I’ve worked with the Maricopa County attorney’s office, I go to court, I’ve interned with Maricopa County as a victims' advocate,” she said.

“It’s all come together here.”

All the campuses maintain suites where Barrett students can relax. At the West campus, many of the Barrett students commute, and the suite in the University Center is an inviting space for them to feel at home during the day and access the built-in support system. Advisers, staff and faculty are housed in the suite.

Susan Estby, student recruitment coordinator, knows exactly what advice the students need. Estby was a Barrett student at the West campus before she graduated in 2013.

“Barrett allowed me to make connections without even realizing it,” she said.

“If you tell students, ‘There’s this support offered for you,’ sometimes they feel less-than, or that they’re not honors if they take it. So by having this entire setup, it allows that to happen.”

The West program offers activities over the breaks and, because many students have children or care for siblings, many events are open to families, Estby said.

“We take away the myth that the typical college student is one with a nuclear family who is going to college right from high school because that’s not the norm now,” she said.

“We try to let our students know that anything can happen and we’re here if you need us.”

Each campus has its own signature event that’s open to all Barrett students. West has the Womyn’s Leadership Conference, downtown has a red-carpet event at the Phoenix Art Museum, Tempe has the Gold Standards Awards to recognize outstanding students and Polytechnic has a farm-to-table meal called Dinner Down the Orchard.

“We have a lot of agriculture in this area, and we wanted to show students from all four campuses our connection to the local agriculture,” said Jennifer Brady, program manager for Barrett at the Polytechnic campus. The last two years, the dinner was held at Schnepf Farms, where the students got a tour before sharing a meal together.

“It’s great to see the students from all the campuses meeting each other and making those connections,” she said.

‘We want to serve them’

The annual events are not the only chance for Barrett students to interact. Student groups and activities on the Tempe campus are also open to all honors scholars.

One activity that draws from all campuses is the Barrett Choir, an ensemble open to any honors student regardless of singing experience.

David Schildkret, a professor of music, formed the ensemble in 2011 because the School of Music wanted to offer more opportunities to nonmajors.

“It was my suspicion that in the honors college would be many students who participated in music in high school but weren’t doing that at ASU,” he said.

The choir, which usually has about 80 to 100 participants, draws from all four campuses and every major.

“I’m always trying to balance the familiar with broadening the scope a little bit,” he said of the repertoire. The choir has performed everything from Broadway songs to the Mass in C Major by Beethoven to choral pieces by Eric Whitacre.

The activity is rigorous but also acts a stress reliever, Schildkret said.

“We’re still trying to do something of quality, and that takes effort and energy and focus. One value is that the kind of energy and focus required for music is different from what they normally focus on. The old adage is that a change is as good as a rest,” he said.

“There are days when I walk in and I can tell everyone has a project due in the next two days, but we leave it at the door.”

Jacobs said that Barrett not only has grown in the time he has been here — this is the fourth straight year the incoming class topped 2,000 students — but has also increased the quality of the cohort. Even with expansion, the average SAT score has inched up to about 1380, and about 47 percent of the group are students of color. The college has also increased engagement, with more than 150 activities offered to honors students at the campuses.

One of the first changes he made when he came was to abolish the rule that Barrett students had to maintain a 3.4 GPA. Many students were kicked out of the honors college for getting a B.

“I was horrified,” said Jacobs, who found out about the rule when a student stopped by to say goodbye to him.

Now, Barrett students don’t have to maintain a minimum GPA but they must have a 3.25 upon graduation or they don’t receive the honors certificate.

Jacobs also boosted the retention rate in Barrett, which was a dismal 25 percent when he arrived — similar to honors programs at other universities. The reason, he said, is that students wanted the benefits of being in the honors college, such as early course registration and a vibrant living community, but didn’t want to do a thesis project.

“We have worked hard over the last 15 years to get that figure to very near 89 percent,” he said. Students can receive $750 toward the cost of their project as well as other funding for academic interests. The college brought alumni back to talk about the value of the thesis experience and began celebrating the projects at a thesis symposium.

“The younger students are very impressed but also they can see that hundreds of students are doing this so they can stick with it.”

Jacobs said that not many universities have a comprehensive honors program that’s available to students in every major at multiple campuses.

“We could cut our size by a quarter and be super elite but that’s not what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We’re trying to get that student in the state who’s done well in high school and who wants to be challenged intellectually, and we want to serve them.”

Top photo: Barrett, The Honors College at ASU's Polytechnic campus has about 350 students. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now