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The exclusivity problem

At a University that prides itself on whom it includes, some students feel ASU's Barrett, The Honors College creates divisions within its own campus

barrett illu 2.png

The exclusivity problem

At a University that prides itself on whom it includes, some students feel ASU's Barrett, The Honors College creates divisions within its own campus

Illustrations by Nick Devor Bronson Soza

Though ASU's favorite claim to fame may be its staple No. 1 in innovation title, the University also cites national renown for something else: Barrett, The Honors College.

Boasting the tagline "gold standard of honors colleges," Barrett is advertised as a "model for excellence to rival Stanford, MIT and the Ivy League." However, despite its self-avowed prestige, not all students hold a positive opinion of The Honors College.

When Morgan Dunn, an out-of-state student, first applied to ASU as a music performance major, she had no interest in honors programs. But after Barrett offered to pay for her flight to audition for the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, she began to reconsider.

"I first came in with no bias. I didn't know much about it, just what they had told me. I thought it was pretty cool," Dunn said. "I quickly noticed the atmosphere wasn’t what I had expected."

During her freshman year, Dunn began to feel disconnected from her peers and the honors environment. By the end of her sophomore year, she had dropped out of Barrett completely.

Ema Angulo Rodríguez attended Central High School in Phoenix, a school with nearly a 93% minority and 92% economically disadvantaged student body. She did not have the option to leave Arizona and was drawn to Barrett because she wanted the best education possible in the state.

"I was freshly new to the country. I did not necessarily have a solid idea of what college is supposed to look like," Rodríguez said. "I just wanted to go to a good university."

Though she was initially waitlisted, Rodríguez was eventually accepted into Barrett. She described her freshman year transition to life in The Honors College as a "complete shift" from her upbringing.

"Looking back, I think I didn't really know what I was signing up for," Rodríguez said. "And if I was to become a freshman again, I wouldn't sign up for Barrett."

Dunn and Rodríguez are not alone in expressing these sentiments. The r/ASU subreddit is filled with students criticizing or regretting joining The Honors College, and media coverage of Barrett’s fee policies and long-term career benefits has frequently been controversial.

But for some students, Barrett’s asymmetrical relationship with the larger campus culture is its greatest flaw. At a University that publicly prides itself on inclusivity, diversity and collaboration, Barrett may have an exclusivity problem.

Building prestige

Initially named "The University Honors College" at its founding in 1988, the honors program took the name "Barrett" in 2001 after a $10 million endowment from Craig and Barbara Barrett. Over the next 20 years, The Honors College would transform into the sophisticated program it is today.

In 2003, Mark Jacobs, previously an administrator from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, was hired as dean of Barrett. In 2015, Jacobs wrote that he shared a vision with President Michael Crow to create "a high quality honors college" with "many of the characteristics of a top private residential college."

In 2009, the $140 million Barrett Complex opened on ASU’s Tempe campus, offering a gated residential experience exclusively for honors students.

By 2020, nearly 7,000 of ASU’s more than 60,000 undergraduates — excluding online students — were enrolled in Barrett.

There is no official ranking of honors programs in the U.S., but Barrett spokespeople typically cite positive reviews from Inside Honors, an honors college guidebook project created by writer John Willingham.

Barrett’s tagline, "widely considered the gold standard," is a quote from writer Frank Bruni citing Willingham in a 2015 New York Times opinion editorial. Some of Barrett’s advertising attributes this quote directly to the paper without mentioning Bruni or Willingham.

While Barrett’s marketing campaigns embrace comparisons to small competitive universities — even describing The Honors College as an "oasis" within ASU — Crow’s public messaging has criticized exclusivity in higher education.

In a 2019 Washington Post op-ed, Crow declared that the "exclusivity-obsessed mindset in U.S. higher education is an unproductive and subversive force," arguing "higher education is too important … to be held hostage to exclusivity thinking." While ASU boasted an 88% acceptance rate for the Fall 2020 semester, Barrett keeps its acceptance rate off its "facts and figures" page.

Nicole Greason, a Barrett spokesperson, said Barrett’s aims do not conflict with Crow’s anti-exclusion stance.

"I think that Barrett is consistent with the value of inclusivity by how it admits students of all backgrounds and of all interests," Greason said. "Barrett does not exclude students for any reason."

Contrasted lifestyles; demographic disparities

One of the first things Rodríguez said she noticed about Barrett was a lack of diversity. A native Spanish speaker and Venezuelan political refugee from midtown Phoenix, Rodríguez had not spent much time in primarily white institutions prior to coming to ASU.

"It was such a stark difference going from Central High School to Barrett, because everyone around me was very white," she said.

To this day, Rodríguez believes she was one of only two Latine students in her freshman dorm in the Barrett Residential Complex. Dunn had a similar experience.

"I could only remember maybe seeing like three or four (Black people), and one of them was my CA," Dunn said. "I remember stressing that to my Barrett advisor."

Demographic statistics obtained from Barrett appear to confirm Rodríguez and Dunn’s sense of racial disparities between The Honors College and ASU's general student body.

While ASU’s general demographic data is easily accessible via its website, Barrett-specific data is only available by request, according to Greason.

In 2020, African American or Black students made up 4.3% of the University’s undergraduate student body, but only 2.1% of Barrett’s. Additionally, 26.2% of ASU undergraduates identified themselves as Hispanic, but only 18.8% of Barrett students did.

As a whole, Barrett is generally whiter than ASU's larger student body. According to the same data set, 46.6% of ASU undergraduates are white, in comparison to 54.9% of Barrett students.

Dunn knew of Black student organizations at ASU but did not feel their presence within Barrett. Throughout her time in The Honors College, she struggled to find people who looked like her, had similar backgrounds or shared similar values.

There are also likely significant socioeconomic class disparities between Barrett and the larger University.

In 2020, 31.9% of ASU undergraduates were first-generation college students, but only 12% of Barrett students were. In parallel, one third of the student body were Pell Grant recipients, whereas 18% of Barrett students were Pell Grant eligible.

Both Dunn and Rodríguez believe these factors have an impact on Barrett's student culture. Rodríguez said she thought most students "were from very rich high schools."

"People perceive students from Barrett as being very elite, full of themselves, toxic or entitled," she said. "I never felt like I fit in, to be honest."

Rodríguez thinks another contributing factor to some Barrett students' feigned superiority is the Barrett Complex itself. She pointed to The Honors College's exclusive dining hall and housing; gated communities and private meeting spaces act as physical obstructions between honors students and the rest of the University.

"It's as if ASU wanted to set students apart," Rodríguez said. "Like 'ASU students are great, but Barrett students, those are the best. Those are the ones that we need to protect. Those are the ones we need to keep safe and we need to give the best things.'"

In her sophomore year, Dunn changed her major to sustainability and decided to move off campus. She also decided to withdraw from Barrett, seeing little benefit to her academic future and career.

"Being away from that environment shed more light on things that I didn't really like about it," Dunn said. "Things that made me feel uncomfortable but didn't realize I felt uncomfortable in the moment."

Rodríguez also lives off campus now. She decided to remain in Barrett solely for the opportunity of completing a senior honors thesis, which she believes will be important for her graduate school applications.

What's in $1,000?

Any racial or socio-economic disparities between Barrett and the greater university would likely stem from a multitude of factors. Wealthier, non-Black, non-Latino students are more likely to have flashy resumes from well-resourced high schools, and are more likely to attend selective colleges in the first place, according to The Brookings Institution.

But some barriers to honors enrollment may be perpetuated by the University itself.

Barrett charges its students a $1,000 semesterly fee. This was criticized when first implemented in 2006 at $500 per semester — half its current rate — and remains controversial today.

"There are different reasons why students would choose not to attend Barrett, but we hope that the fee is not the reason …" Greason said. "If there's a student that has a need and cannot afford the fee, there are funds available that they can apply for."

Barrett also operates some of the most expensive housing and dining options on campus. In 2021, the cheapest option for Barrett freshman-eligible housing on the Tempe campus was in its shared-room, shared-bathroom setup at $9,090 per year. Comparatively, the cheapest option for the same setup for non-honors students was at Palo Verde for $6,870 per year. For Barrett students opting to live on campus, their only option for the first two years is in Barrett housing, unless they file for exemption. 

The average meal plan rate was $2,146 per semester compared to Barrett’s $2,765 per semester average.

A written statement from Barrett claimed the Barrett dining hall has "better food" and the complex’s housing is of "higher quality construction," justifying higher price tags.

Rodríguez believes much of Barrett's fees and housing policy is designed to make the University more money and potentially increase The Honors College's exclusivity.

"It's a barrier for low-income students to access honors education," Rodríguez said.

Greason said Barrett does not "exclude students based on their socio-economic status," and that the honor’s college is "always looking to be inclusive."

"It's an ongoing effort," Greason said. "It's something that we're always engaged in and that we feel is an extremely important part of what The Honors College is doing."

But according to Rodríguez, Barrett has a culture of exclusivity which undermines the exact values the University espouses in its charter: that ASU is "measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed."

"I think the existence of Barrett is contradictory to the charter," she said.

Today, both Rodríguez and Dunn remain somewhat distant and indifferent to their experiences with Barrett. They are confident in their academic abilities with or without The Honors College.

And for Rodríguez, Barrett's exclusivity problem is only part of a larger culture of institutional elitism in America today.

"My freshman year was when I first realized that a lot of institutions that I wanted to be part of were never meant for me," Rodríguez said. "They were set up for wealthy white people and I just happened to be able to carve a place for myself in those spaces."

Reach the reporter at and follow @lexmoul on Twitter. 

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