When students in the UA's Honors College each were asked to pay $500 a year starting in fall 2010, administrators said the need was urgent. The fee was a reaction to state budget cuts, they said, and without the fee the Honors College could be downsized.
Honors students handed over $2.53 million, but after 15 months little of that money was spent to improve or maintain the college, an analysis found.
Ten percent - $253,000 - went to the university for "collecting and distributing" the fee.
A little more than that - $271,000 - was rebated back to students who said they couldn't afford the fee.
Three percent - $83,000 - was spent on teacher salaries, wages, travel and technology such as computers, a flat-screen television and a camera lens.
In all, the Honors College spent $689,000 in the first 15 months of collecting the fee. The rest - $1.84 million - hadn't been spent as of the beginning of the current school year.
Even with the fee, the college downsized anyway. More than a fifth of the 4,200 honors students dropped out in 2010, the first year of the fee. The vast majority of those - 85 percent - continued at the UA. Honors Dean Patricia MacCorquodale attributed the large drop to the fee.
In interviews with the Star, many honors students questioned the fee and the college itself - contending they don't receive much from the program and that it's geared toward freshmen. In addition, students said UA's Honors College falls far short of its main competitor, the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University.
Where the money went
In the first 15 months the fee was collected, through September 2011:
• Nearly $71,000 went toward faculty salaries or purchases for their classes.
• More than $6,000 was spent on faculty travel.
• A professor bought a $2,000 flat-screen TV for "research," while two other professors got nearly $2,700 for new computers.
• More than $22,000 was spent on food, mainly for lunches and events put on by the Honors College.
• $6,450 went for 400 medallions given to honors students before graduation.
• $3,000 was spent on T-shirts and rugby shirts for groups of honors students.
This year, MacCorquodale said, she is spending more of the money on classes. And she said more is going for study-abroad grants and the First Year program, designed to help incoming honors freshmen adjust to college life.
Through December, $24,000 had been awarded for study-abroad grants and $1,750 had been spent on the First Year program.
MacCorquodale said only professors teaching honors classes got the pay boost. They do more work to keep their honors classes challenging, she said.
Many professors used the money for education-related travel or used it for resources in the classroom.
Associate English professor Susan White spent her money on a $2,000 flat-screen television for "research," while associate professor of art Karen Zimmermann spent $1,000 on a Canon camera lens. Two professors, Lynne Borden of the School of Family and Consumer Sciences, and Andrea Romero, associate professor of family studies-human development, bought computers that totaled nearly $2,700.
"Those are people that took the money to purchase things for their research rather than taking the money as additional income," MacCorquodale said. "Susan White was one of the teachers for the visual culture course. In fact, she was the coordinating faculty member for that course last year."
Few perks seen
Students must apply for the Honors College. Once they're in they can take honors classes, register early for classes as freshmen and sophomores, live in honors residence halls, apply for honors scholarships and access the Slonaker House, which has a computer lab.
But there aren't enough honors classes - especially in upper divisions, said Stephanie Quach, an honors junior studying molecular and cellular biology.
Mattie Henry, a physiology junior, withdrew from the Honors College as soon as the fee was implemented.
Priority registration for freshmen and sophomores is the only Honors College perk she said she utilized. And since she's now a junior, she doesn't need that.
Megan Donohoe, a junior studying physiology, said she hasn't dropped the Honors College yet, but plans to do so soon because she's disappointed with its resources and activities.
"Besides registering for classes, it's not really useful," she said.
The fee alienated many students, said Daniel Harms, a former honors student. "I just don't feel like it's worth $500 a year for the few benefits."
Focus on freshmen
Several juniors and seniors said too many activities focus on freshmen. Natalie Shue, who was the college's recruitment coordinator from 2007 to 2010, said there's a reason for that.
"The transition to college is a difficult one for all students, and the best way we, as educators, can support freshmen is by providing them with small classes and activities geared specifically towards their needs," Shue said.
Lindsey Forry, a junior studying political science, Spanish and Portuguese, said she was part of a first-semester freshman honors colloquium, a one-credit seminar class that can be on varying subjects. She said she received some information on the resources around campus, but felt it was mostly a waste of her time.
She said a lot of time in the honors colloquium was spent listening to people talk or playing games. She has since withdrawn from the Honors College.
Falling behind ASU
Arizona State University's honors program, which charges $1,000 a year, provides students with their own gated campus in Tempe, dorms at each of its four campuses, a computer lab, dining hall, exercise facility and access to professors.
Ashley Bleicher, a ASU sophomore honors student, said Barrett provides study resources, a writing center, specific instructors and a large pool of honors classes to choose from. She said she was inspired to pursue a career in sustainability by living in an environmentally friendly honors dorm.
Collin Coelet, a Tucson native studying biochemistry, chose ASU over UA and said Barrett had a large impact on his decision.
"The UA Honors College just doesn't have the same prestige as Barrett," Coelet said. "Also, Barrett feels like a small campus."
UA junior Alexandra Cooke, who is studying international studies and physiology, said she has enjoyed most of her honors classes. But she said the UA Honors College doesn't feel like a close-knit group in the way the faculty presents it - and the way ASU students see Barrett.
She hopes the new honors dorm is a step toward creating a better sense of community among honors students. Árbol de la Vida, or "Tree of Life," opened in August and houses more than 700 students.
"I never really felt that it was a community," Cooke said, "but rather just a set of requirements."
Hope Miller is a University of Arizona student. This story was adapted from her final project in her Reporting Public Affairs class. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org Star reporter Rob O'Dell contributed database analysis for this story.