The formal presentation of the honors scholars to Meehan has become a regular part in the university’s fall routine since JSU developed its honors program five years ago, when eight freshman students attended the event. The program has grown by eight freshman students each year since then. On Tuesday, 30 Elite Honors students attended.
“We decided it was important for them to meet the president,” said Steve Whitton, director of JSU’s honors program. “It just stuck.”
The Elite Honors Program is an exclusive group comprising eight students selected from each class as the top academic performers. They receive all-inclusive scholarships that cover the cost of tuition, books, food, and housing. Each student also receives a laptop computer.
A more inclusive honors program was also established in 2009 and has since grown.
University officials said the honors students’ presence on campus is good for the entire university. Since the program began, the average ACT score of incoming freshman classes has increased to 22.5 from 19.8 and retention rates have increased. This year the retention rate for the sophomore class bumped up to 71 percent, up from 67 percent for the sophomore class last year, Meehan said.
“Because of the scholarship program that we have initiated, we’ve been able to attract top-notch students,” Meehan said.
The elite program lured many of this year’s new students away from larger universities, including the University of Alabama, Auburn University and Emory University.
“They have really good scholarships and I don’t want to be in debt going out of college,” said Erin Whetzel, a freshman who wants to become a research scientist.
Incoming freshman Alex McFry, a White Plains High School graduate majoring in communication and minoring in film, said the scholarship is part of the reason he picked JSU over New York University. McFry, an aspiring TV producer, was the valedictorian of his class and won an award from the public affairs network CSPAN for his films.
For McFry and a few other members of the program, JSU’s proximity to home also played a part in their decisions.
“If I was dropped in a place like that I don’t know what would happen,” McFry said referring to NYU.
Alyssa Cunningham is a freshman honors student from Arley and wants to practice law after she graduates. She said she could have attended a flagship university or a research institution, but she wanted to come to JSU after visiting campus.
“I toured JSU and fell in love,” Cunningham said. “It’s not so massive that I get lost.”
Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.