AMHERST — Nestled in a brand-new classroom building designed by a celebrated architect, 17 freshmen were enthusiastically discussing Plato in a seminar called “Ideas that Changed the World.”
It was only the third class of the semester, yet they already knew each other’s names. When class ended, they had just yards to walk back to their new dorm.
The setting was not a small, private ivy-covered liberal arts college with a $60,000 price tag but the University of Massachusetts Amherst — in the $192 million, seven-building complex that opened recently as the new home of the Commonwealth Honors College. The university hopes the new honors complex, nestled within the larger campus, will lure some of the state’s top students to Amherst.
As more families despair at the climb in private college tuition each year, UMass is suddenly able to offer a much more appealing option to high-achieving students, who tend to shun the state’s public universities in favor of private colleges and out-of-state publics with more cachet, whether they be the University of Vermont or the University of Virginia.
“Previously we were a set of academic requirements. Now we are a place, a community in space,” said history professor Daniel Gordon, who is serving as acting dean of the honors college since the recent death of longtime dean Priscilla Clarkson.
Early signs suggest the new complex, located in the center of the campus, is generating buzz for UMass. Several honors college freshmen approached early in the semester were verging on being giddy with happiness at where they had landed — even though almost all had aspired to attend competitive private colleges.
They said they loved the honors seminar class, and one student had a professor who already has offered research opportunities. One marveled at the complex’s view of mountain sunsets. Another compared her new dorm, with modern furnishings and lots of glass, to a hotel.
“I feel like I’m getting about the same education” as at a private university, said Maya Bergandy, a computer science major from Tiverton, R.I.
Even paying out-of-state tuition at UMass, with a scholarship, was a lot more affordable than her other top choice, Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
“Even though it’s expensive,” she said, the price is “a lot more decent.”
The honors college on the state’s flagship campus has been around since 1999, offering the most talented students small seminars, special events, and the opportunity to live on an honors freshman floor. But it had no physical home within the city-size university.
That changed this fall when UMass debuted the new center, the largest capital project in campus history. The contemporary buildings, clad in a mix of brick, stone, and aluminum, were designed by William Rawn Associates, the firm behind Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall and countless projects for universities in Boston and elsewhere.
The new complex has 1,500 beds, enough to house about half of the honors students. About 13 percent of all undergraduates are in the honors program.
All honors freshmen were given the option to live in one of the two freshman halls of single, double, and triple rooms. Another 900 beds in suites and apartments are for upperclassmen.
Then there are nine classrooms, administrative offices, two faculty apartments, and a 24-hour café with a brick pizza oven.
The event space is booked most weeknights with honors college events, including a world film series on Mondays and a different professor chatting over pizza each Tuesday.
All this for more or less the same price every other UMass student pays: about $23,000 a year for Massachusetts residents, including room and board, and $38,000 for out-of-state students. The honors college charges an extra $600 a year for academic programming, and a shared freshman room in the new complex also carries a $600 premium — because they are new and air-conditioned, UMass said.
On the other hand, in-state freshmen entering the honors college get a $2,000 scholarship, which they can renew every year if they maintain a good grade-point average.
Honors students are not entirely buffered from the downsides of attending a huge public university hit by years of state budget cuts. They still take most of their classes with the general population, and that includes lecture classes with several hundred students.
UMass Amherst has just over 1,000 professors, down from the high of about 1,200 a generation ago. Some students have trouble finding an honors thesis advisor, Gordon acknowledged to students.
Some upperclassmen in the program said they have been unimpressed with the experience.
“There really hasn’t been much to the honors college,” said junior Mike Bjorge. Other than a senior thesis and the nice new dorms, “you just kind of put it on your resume.”
The gleaming new complex also heightens the longstanding awkwardness for UMass (and many other public universities with honors colleges) of hosting an elite program where certain students get more attention from the faculty, and now, an enviable new set of facilities. Several students said they occasionally hear negative comments from classmates not in the honors college.
UMass officials are keenly aware of this unease and designed the complex accordingly, with a walkway wending between the honors buildings designed to be a major thoroughfare for all students traversing the campus. Some non-honors classes are held in the complex’s classrooms.
Administrators also stress that transferring into the honors program is easy for students who do well when they arrive. Most who earn a 3.4 grade-point average on campus are accepted.
At the semester’s first “Pizza & Prof” night, when Gordon took questions about the honors college, one freshman raised another touchy subject.
“I haven’t seen a black kid enter Oak,” one of the freshman dorms, said the young man, who was white.
Minority students make up 18 percent of the honors college, compared to 22 percent of the rest of the undergraduates. But the proportions of blacks and Latinos among honors college students are only 2 percent and 3 percent, respectively, half of their representation among non-honors students.
Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy attributed this in part to the limits of his scholarship budget, which makes it impossible for UMass Amherst to compete with wealthy private schools that can give free rides to the students they most want.
A yearlong program that helps minority students prepare to transfer into the honors college nearly doubled in enrollment this year, to 31 freshmen.
The minimum criteria for incoming freshmen to be accepted to Commonwealth Honors College are a combined score of 1,300 on the critical reading and math SATs, a grade-point average of A-, and a rank in the top 10 percent of their high school class.
But UMass Amherst officials hope the new complex will generate enough interest so that it becomes harder to get in.
Today, many of the students who enroll in the honors college compare it to Boston University, Northeastern University, and other schools with similar selectivity. The goal is to compete with even more exclusive colleges.
“I’d like to see us become competitive with Ivy League institutions,” said Gordon, “so that students who are actually admitted to them opt to come here instead.”
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