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 90s, designed with aim of drawing 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, determining the quality and value among these ubiquitous honors programs can prove challenging. Below are some key considerations:
Class size and number of honors courses
Ideally, an honors college will offer a wide variety of honors-only courses with low class sizes, in the 15-20 range. In reality, these two factors vary widely across schools. The University of Mississippi, for example, boasts over 70 honors courses and class sizes of fewer than 15 students. Arizona State, Indiana, Penn State, and Temple offer a similarly vast array of honors courses as well as class sizes under 20.
However, you need to be discerning when checking out average class sizes on university websites. Some programs may truly offer honors courses with 15-20 students, but offer so few specialized courses that honors students may often find themselves in 300 seat lecture halls, along with the rest of the general student population. As such, make sure to ask your prospective college for a complete list of honors courses.
Does the “honors” experience extend outside the classroom?
As a fairly serious student, you may benefit by being surrounded by other academic-minded students outside of the lecture hall. After all, rooming with someone like this guy might disrupt the whole “honors” vibe.
Find out if your prospective school offers special honors living arrangements. At The University of South Carolina and Boston University you are required to live in a designated honors dorm as a freshman. At Drexel University, all honors students live in a dorm that features special guest lecturers and faculty dinners on a regular basis. Other schools such as Michigan State leave it up to you—students can elect to reside on specified floors of certain doors if they so choose. Pitt also makes honors housing optional and, interestingly, allows non-honors students to elect to live in the honors residence hall.
It’s no secret that state schools (sans merit aid considerations) have a significantly lower sticker price than most private colleges. Since honors programs are typically either the same price as non-honors or, at worst, involve a nominal “honors” fee, they can be an absolute bargain depending on the quality of the program. Let’s say a Pennsylvania resident is choosing between Gettysburg, Bucknell, and the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State. Here’s how the financials break down:
Gettysburg (room/board/meals/fees): $58,820 x 4 years = $235,280
Bucknell (room/board/meals/fees): $60,140 x 4 years = $240,560
Penn State Honors (room/board/meals/fees): $29,228 x 4 years = $116,912
If this student’s ultimate post-undergraduate goal is to get an MBA, let’s say from Wharton, that $130,000 savings would go a long way toward covering Wharton’s $97,000 annual cost. When you start talking about six-figure price differentials, you are dealing with amounts of money that can impact you beyond your 20s and even into middle age. If you don’t believe us, talk to someone who has massive amounts of educational debt and see which of the above options they would choose.
CT’s Bottom Line:
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):