Are you craving the in-class intimacy of a tiny liberal arts college but also find yourself drawn to the bright lights of a vibrant, sprawling campus, the big-time sports, and the chance to be part of a large and passionate student community? Not to sound like a middle-of-the-night infomercial but—now it’s finally possible to enjoy the best of both worlds—the honors college!

While honors programs have existed in one form or another since the GI bill first brought an influx of talented but cost-conscious students to public universities in the post-war era, the full-blown honors college is a more recent phenomenon. The majority of honors colleges were born in the 1990s, designed to lure Ivy-league caliber students to public institutions. Today, it is hard to find a large, public university that does not advertise some type of honors distinction. Yet, with new programs sprouting up faster than dandelions in spring, determining the quality and value of a university’s honors experience can prove quite challenging. Fortunately, we are here to help. What follows are the most important factors you should consider when exploring honors colleges/programs.

Will I get accepted to an honors college?

Acceptance into some honors colleges is relatively formulaic and simply involves meeting a defined set of criteria. The University of Pittsburgh automatically allows applicants to take honors classes if they have a minimum SAT score of 1450 and graduate in the top 5% of their high school class. Virginia Commonwealth will only consider applicants with a 1330 SAT and a 3.5 unweighted GPA. Clemson’s Calhoun Honors College will consider applicants with a 1380 SAT and above but warns that the average accepted applicant possesses a 1480 and also graduated in the top 3% of their high school class. Clark Honors College at The University of Oregon takes a very different approach, explicitly stating that there are no minimum academic requirements and that qualities such as creative potential and community contributions are given serious consideration in the admissions process.

These four examples illustrate that honors admissions runs the gamut from automatic acceptance with certain credentials to minimum scores/GPA required to even apply to more holistic approaches, as in the case of Oregon.

Class size and number of honors courses

Ideally, an honors college will offer a wide variety of honors-only courses with class sizes commensurate with those of elite liberal arts schools, typically in the 15-20 range. In reality, the numbers of courses offered and the numbers of students in the classroom vary widely across schools.

Despite its large size (over 1,000 honors students), The University of Mississippi boasts over 70 honors courses and class sizes of fewer than 15 students in its Barksdale Honors College. A perusal of Barksdale’s ample and diverse honors course selections reveals that they also offer a large number of sections per course—for example, there are 29 sections of the freshman honors seminar set to run in fall of 2017.

Arizona State, Indiana, Penn State, and Temple offer a similarly vast array of honors courses as well as class sizes under 20. Unfortunately, some programs may only a smattering of honors courses with 15-20 students, supplemented by a majority of classes in 300 seat lecture halls. As such, make sure to ask your prospective college for a complete list of honors courses (if this cannot easily be found online).

Does the “honors” experience extend outside the classroom?

As a fairly serious student, you may benefit by being surrounded by other academically-minded students outside of the lecture hall. Sharing a living space affords honors students the chance to easily study or complete group projects together and partake in unique intellectual experiences. Toward this end, it is important to find out if your prospective school offers special honors living arrangements and if so, what the offerings and policies look like, as they can take a variety of forms.

The University of South Carolina encourages freshman to live in their honors-only residence, which even includes three lecture halls that allow students to get to class without stepping foot outside. Boston University actually requires members of its Kilachand Honors College to live in a designated honors dorm as a freshman. Drexel University makes separate housing totally optional but offers an honors dorm that features special guest lecturers and faculty dinners on a regular basis. Pitt also makes honors housing optional and, interestingly, allows non-honors students to elect to live in the honors residence hall (though honors students get first dibs). Other schools such as Michigan State have honors floors in eight of their residence halls across campus, rather than all in one building.

How does the cost compare to private colleges?

It’s no secret that state schools (sans merit aid considerations) have a significantly lower sticker price than most private colleges. Since honors. Let’s say a Pennsylvania resident is choosing between Bucknell University, a well-regarded private school, and the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State. Here’s how the financials break down:

Bucknell (room/board/meals/fees): $64,616 x 4 years = $258,464

Penn State Honors (room/board/meals/fees): $35,068 x 4 years = $140,272

For those scoring at home, that’s a savings of more than $118,000.

It’s no secret that state schools (sans financial aid) have a significantly lower sticker price than most private colleges. However, given that many “honors” students also qualify for substantial merit aid from the larger university at which they enroll, honors programs can be an absolute bargain. For example, students admitted into the Schreyer Honors College automatically qualifiy for an Academic Excellence Scholarship valued at $4,500 per year, while students at Arizona State’s Barrett Honors College have exclusive access to scholarship ranging from $1,000 to as much as $20,000 per year.

CT’s quick take

Honors colleges can be a cost-effective and highly rewarding undergraduate experience for top-notch students. In the best-case scenario, you can enjoy all the benefits of a large university (research opportunities, athletics, and a diverse student body) while still benefiting from an intimate, rigorous, and individualized experience usually reserved for elite liberal arts colleges. It is critical, however, to do sufficient homework on any program you are considering as not all honors colleges are created equal.

Below, College Transitions has compiled a list of top honors programs (in alphabetical order):

Arizona State University (Barrett)

City University of New York (Macaulay)

Clemson University (Calhoun)

New Jersey Institute of Technology (Dorman)

Ohio University (Honors Tutorial College)

Penn State University (Schreyer)

Purdue University

Temple University

University of California – Irvine (Campuswide Honors)

University of Connecticut

University of Delaware

University of Georgia

University of Illinois (Campus Honors)

University of Kansas

University of Maryland

University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

University of Oregon (Clark)

University of South Carolina

University of Texas at Austin (Plan II)

University of Virginia (Echols)

Andrew Belasco
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew's experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.