I recently purchase A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs edited by John Willingham, and written with the help of a PhD statistician. While each public university honors program is rated in this book, the programs are not ranked against each other. That would make little sense. Different public universities have different levels of resources as well as different approaches to an “honors-level” education.

There are several very good reasons to consider a public university honors program versus a private liberal arts college or a more selective mid-sized private university. For instance:

Honors students are treated as much like “royalty” as they can be treated by a public university.

They may have the opportunity to live in honors housing, take smaller classes, receive priority registration for classes, have closer access to the faculty as well as the opportunity to participate in original research as early as the freshman year.

Honors students have the opportunity to develop friendships with equally motivated students.

This applies more to a public university honors program that offers honors housing, but it is also true for students who are serious about tackling honors-level work. The students who can hit the ground running in the more challenging courses are also the most likely to return for their sophomore and junior years as well as earn their degrees on time.

Honors students are forced to be organized.

A public university honors program typically requires a minimum grade point average, usually 3.25 or higher to remain in the program. If the program is tied to a scholarship, the scholarship might also be tied to grades. A smart person who quickly learns to be organized in their approach to college, balancing school work with extracurriculars and fun, will remain organized, even after college.

A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs points out that, for each public university honors program profile, the freshman retention and graduation rates are better than they are for their university community. How much better depends on the admissions practices of the school. Several of the programs listed in this book are within universities that are relatively selective including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Michigan, UCLA and the University of Virginia. Those who are offered admission to these programs are also likely to have been offered admission to exceptionally selective private universities. Other honors programs operate within schools that admit more than half of the students who apply to join their freshman class.

It’s quite likely that the student who might be in the middle to the upper third of the admit pool at a very good to excellent public university could be admitted to the honors program at a less-selective school. For instance, a student with 1250 SAT (out of 1600 in Critical Reading and Math) as well as a 3.8 GPA in rigorous college-prep subjects could be in the middle of the admit pool at schools such as the University of Delaware, Penn State-University Park and Rutgers University-New Brunswick. That student would need a GPA of 4.0 or higher as well as a 1400 SAT or better to be a candidate for their honors program. However, that same student might be offered admission to the public university honors program at SUNY-University at Albany, the University of Maine or the University of Rhode Island.

In these cases is it better to pass on the home state university, if it is a very good one, in favor of the school that offers admission to an honors program?

Possibly, if you can get some questions answered, such as:

Is admission tied to a merit scholarship that makes the public university honors program attractive financially as well as academically?

The differences in costs between paying in-state tuition at your home state university versus paying out-of-state tuition at another state university can be as much as $100,000 over four years, if you receive no scholarship. My feeling is that the out-of-state school that wants a non-resident for their honors program should also offer a significant discount in tuition and fees.

How would that merit scholarship affect any need-based scholarships that I might be offered?

Different schools have different policies regarding merit and need-based awards. Typically, most students end up in a position to keep both, unless the merit-based award is very large (over $10,000/year). You want to be sure that you can float a financial boat for four years.

How is the public university honors program structured versus the general education requirements for the school as well as the major?

Some schools have a set of special honors core courses that may also be used to fulfill general education requirements, or exempt a student from them altogether. Others have honors sections in various majors, though they might not offer them in every major.

How is honors housing arranged, and how long to honors students live in it?

At Rutgers-New Brunswick, for example, a new Honors College building will open this semester with 500 beds. However, those beds are only for freshmen. Sophomores will have the option to move into honors communities in other residence halls on campus, or move off campus if they wish.

What are the retention and graduation rates for the honors program versus the rest of the school?

Honors students are the shining lights for any college. They are the best and most-recruited freshmen they have. More than any other students, the college does not want to lose them. However, a school’s campus culture is as important in a decision to stay or leave as the academics. If a student feels uncomfortable with the culture, s/he is more likely to leave, even if s/he is in excellent academic standing.

Then there are questions that students must ask themselves.

If I were not admitted to the public university honors program at this school, would I still go here?

The college that you select should still have the degree programs you want as well as a campus culture where you are likely to succeed. For example, had I, a Rutgers alumnus, been in a position to decide between Rutgers-New Brunswick and the University of Maine, I would have been drawn to UMaine’s Political Science and Business Innovation programs. UMaine is also a very good spirit and sports school. However, I would be a rare Yankee fan within a community of Red Sox fans. Could I cope?

Could I remain in the public university honors program if I am pursuing a “harder” major?

This will depend on how courses are structured in the major as well as the honors program. If the honors program, for example, has a series of small seminars, but the engineering or science majors must take the same introductory courses as everyone else, the freshman experience could be very difficult. No student should be placed in the position of having to choose between remaining in a public university honors program vs. continuing in a major that could lead to the career that they truly want.

Do I really want an academic experience in college or an experiential one?

The public university honors program formats do not always match up with the interests of students who are very career oriented. They are excellent programs for students who want a liberal arts degree, but cannot afford to go to a private college, or for students who are serious about producing in the classroom as well as making a positive impression on the faculty. But not all students can balance the academics versus a desire to build a resume. I can relate to this myself, having turned down invitations to a senior honors in Political Science, in favor of a four-course program in practical politics.

A public university honors program can be an enriching and rewarding experience, no matter the school, as long as the student considers costs (if they are an issue) and fit as well as the academic programs. Colleges are schools, first and foremost. But they are also communities of people. No one should choose a school where they cannot get along with the people. 

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