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Honors College Focuses on
Innovation and Equity


Oct. 28, 2020 —  Northern Kentucky University’s Honors College is challenging a preconceived narrative that only high-achieving students with high test scores have the opportunity to pursue a prestigious personalized education.

NKU’s Honors College became the first of its kind in the region to eliminate standardized test scores entirely from its admissions and scholarship processes. Rather than focusing on how well a student performed on the ACT or SAT, students are evaluated on civic engagement, extra-curricular and volunteer activities, and perseverance through a series of short essays, in addition to their high school records. The new approach to admission led the Honors College to its third consecutive year of enrollment growth, welcoming nearly 200 first-year students this fall. 

nku honors student norsing up

“Honors Colleges have been sites for innovation on college campuses for more than half a century because they engage the whole student experience,” said Dean Jim Buss. “We’re often a bridge between student and academic affairs. Rather than existing in one of the more traditional department, we experiment with programs that engage with a growing population of diverse learners.”

And now, the entire university is setting a more holistic admissions standard that focuses less on test scores and more on student success. NKU recently announced that freshman applicants with an unweighted high school GPA of 2.75 or greater will no longer need to submit a test score, a decision guided by the Honors College’s success.

“The Honors College, under Dean Buss’ leadership, is breaking down traditional norms and silos to deliver innovative student-centered experiences,” said President Ashish Vaidya. “With a focus on place-based learning that is responsive and equitable, the Honors College is paving the way for our students to have a transformative education.”

NKU named Buss as the founding dean of its Honors College in 2018. Dean Buss and his team have since reduced barriers for students at NKU and across the nation. He recently co-chaired a National Collegiate Honors Council task force, which produced a position paper challenging historical privileges associated with honors education and recognizing that students offer far more than a test score number to campuses and their community.

“The Honors College tends to be more experimental in design, so things can happen in real-time and respond to current issues and events,” said Dean Buss. “We offered a summer course on America’s history of diseases and pandemics that also focused on how large-scale health crises expose inequalities within society. Honors classes often respond to the needs of the region and surrounding communities, or they connect students to those issues.”

The NKU Honors College offers programming that engages students in diverse learning experiences, from civic engagement to a varsity esports team. One of its latest initiatives with NKU’s Office of African American Student Initiatives’ R.O.C.K.S. program is the Humans of Greater Cincinnati project. Fifty freshmen received an iPad to take photographs, shoot videos and create narratives that capture the human experience with COVID-19, social unrest and the 2020 election.

Amberly Thompson, a student who participated in the initiative, said, ''The project made me find a sense of belonging. While reading the stories of my peers, I gained a better understanding of who they are as individuals. It created a community.''

For more information on NKU Honors College, visit its website.


About NKU: Founded in 1968, we are a growing metropolitan university of more than 15,000 students served by more than 2,000 faculty and staff on a thriving suburban campus near Cincinnati. Located in the quiet suburb of Highland Heights, Kentucky—just seven miles southeast of Cincinnati—we have become a leader in Greater Cincinnati and Kentucky by providing a private school education for a fraction of the cost. While we are one of the fastest growing universities in Kentucky, our professors still know our students' names. For more information, visit