The Construction of Meritocracy within Mass Higher Education: Organizational Dynamics of Honors Programs at American Colleges and Universities

Open Access
Galinova, Elena
Graduate Program:
Educational Theory and Policy
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
March 03, 2005
Committee Members:
  • Gerald K Letendre, Committee Member
  • Roger Lewis Geiger, Committee Member
  • Cheryl Achterberg, Committee Member
  • David P Baker, Committee Chair
  • stratification
  • meritocracy
  • higher education
  • honors programs
  • organizations
  • selective college admissions
This dissertation explores the ideology of contemporary honors programs functioning at different types of higher education institutions and their impact on the overall stratification system of American higher education. It presents the institutional model of honors programs in its evolution from a purely curricular innovation to a widespread organizational structure adapted to the conditions and constraints of its environments. In particular, employing multiple-case study research strategies, it investigates the honors program model as manifested in three different organizational units, i.e., honors programs at a large research university, a Master’s (comprehensive) university, and a community college. The different interplay of factors that shape the identity of each program (pertaining to their technical and institutional environments) is at the core of their organizational dynamics. The host institution with its resources and charter and the honors ideology are identified as the factors with the strongest impact on their identities. The study also addresses the question of these organizations’ role regarding the stratification system of American higher education and issues of social stratification and mobility. Paradoxically, honors programs, which act as agents of differentiation within their host institutions, help decrease the degree of overall stratification between colleges and universities. Moreover, they have a potential, not fully explored yet, to serve as important avenues for social mobility for intellectually superior students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The study reasserts the pervasiveness of honors programs as organizations and suggests a few policy changes that could lead to a better interaction and cooperation among programs and to a better synthesis between the meritocratic ideology and the mission of public colleges and universities to educate the masses.