Southern Oregon University next fall will admit its initial class of the Honors College, a program officials say will not only offer more challenges for high-ranking scholars but will also do it tuition-free.

Southern Oregon University next fall will admit its initial class of the Honors College, a program officials say will not only offer more challenges for high-ranking scholars but will also do it tuition-free.

The program will bring 25 students to campus each year, capping at 100. To be considered, a student must hold at least a 3.75 grade-point average in high school or at a previous college and must have scored a 1200 on the SAT or 27 on the ACT, said Sylvia Kelley, vice president for development at SOU.

The student also must write a strong essay and go through an interview process, she said.

Prakash Chenjeri, a philosophy professor who co-chaired the task force to develop the Honors College, said the program will offer opportunities for high-ranking students "just as we offer opportunities for athletes."

The Honors College is one of several new programs starting at SOU this fall. University officials have studied programs that they hope will help set the school apart from other universities. They've also been researching methods that will attract students to the school and keep them there.

Other new programs include one that will place incoming freshmen in groups to work on community social issues and another designed to help working professionals earn a degree. The school is also planning to add 50 on-campus jobs for the next several years.

Honors College students will be given the option of living together in the same section of the North Campus Village, which will open in the fall, Kelley said.

The students also will follow a specific curriculum, and together take courses that cover general education requirements and include foundation courses in the first year and seminars in the second year, Chenjeri said.

In the second year, students also will begin upper-division general education courses that will continue through their fourth year, when students will graduate with 50 credits of Honors College curriculum, Chenjeri said.

"We think it will be a holistic education they will receive," Chenjeri said. "It's an enriched experience."

Those classes will be in-depth and will allow students to cover more material — "a lot faster and a lot farther" — said Jim Klein, provost and vice president for academic and student affairs.

The rest of their classes — those required for majors — will be taken with the general student population.

The SOU Foundation Board has raised $218,000 and has been pledged another $100,000 to fund the students' tuition, Kelley said. That private money will fund $4,000 of each student's tuition, she said.

The rest — roughly another $4,000 — will come from the school's tuition remissions and another scholarship fund, Kelley said.

School officials say keeping students enrolled is a problem. That's echoed nationally.

George Mehaffy, vice president for academic leadership and change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C., said keeping students and graduating them is one of the biggest dilemmas facing universities throughout the country.

And particularly troubling is the loss of students after the first year of college, when about 50 percent quit or go elsewhere, Mehaffy said.

SOU officials believe that students who are a part of Honors College will form a strong connection to the school, increasing the chance they'll stay on campus for four years.

SOU officials are also touting a mentoring component of the program, which will pair each Honors College student with a professional from the community. Klein said a student may work with a mentor for four years. Or the student may decide on a different focus and change mentors as he or she moves through school.

This piece of the program is unique, according to SOU President Mary Cullinan.

"I don't know of any honors college in the country that has this focus," she said in a previous interview.

Kelley said the number of interested mentors numbers between 75 and 100. She said mentors will be assigned once a student determines his or her focus in the first year or early in the second.

"We think it is something that will change how students learn," Kelley.

Vince Tweddell is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at