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An Honors Program or Honors College: Does the Difference Make a Difference?

By Peterson's Staff updated on Monday, January 28, 2013

Congratulations on being an academically talented and motivated student searching for the best school to fulfill your educational ambitions! Many schools offer enriched opportunities and challenges that promise to fulfill your goals. The variety, though, must seem daunting. On top of the range of sizes, structures, and locations of the hundreds of colleges and universities offering honors courses of study and programs, you probably noticed that they present themselves as being either an honors “program” or an honors “college.” What does it all mean?

Permit me a rather surprising answer—perhaps not that much. I can think of a number of more important considerations, like the size of the institution in which you feel most comfortable, the programs of study you wish to explore, and the inevitable considerations of cost and location. Using these factors, you can narrow the number of schools you are considering by a significant degree. Then you can take at look at honors classes and other opportunities.

The honors program is a relatively recent development in American education

Honors programs have been around for decades; some even prior to World War II. The honors phenomenon really took off with an upsurge in demand for higher education after that war. Elite private schools could not accommodate that demand, neither could most students afford that path. Public higher education responded, and, with the burgeoning growth in their student populations, many began to experiment with enriched opportunities for the expanding pool of talented students. Private schools below the top tier also responded by creating such opportunities, but, unsurprisingly, Harvard and Yale did not.

An honors school, however, is part of a much more recent trend. While a few have been around several decades, in a recent survey I conducted on behalf of the National Collegiate Honors Council, 60 percent of the honors colleges responding had been established since 1994 and 80 percent grew out of a pre-existing honors program. All the respondents reported that one of the primary motivations for the establishment of an honors college was to recruit stronger students like you.

Unfortunately, you cannot presume that an honors college is necessarily “better” than an honors program. Neither should you presume that the newly established honors college at a particular school is significantly better than the previous honors program, except perhaps in its publicity. Apart from consideration of your personal fit with the overall institution, you will have to dig a bit more deeply to determine whether an honors college is right for you. You may find, for example, when comparing roughly equivalent institutions, the honors program at one seems to offer the same, or even more, opportunities than the honors college at the other. No standards define minimum thresholds for claiming “college” status.

What does an honors college look like?

Let's look at honors colleges within comprehensive universities, the dominant model. You need to know, however, that some honors colleges exist as largely or completely autonomous academic entities, although some large community colleges have developed two-year honors colleges for their most talented students. Some honors colleges, moreover, may not possess all these structural characteristics and some highly developed honors programs will.

  • Honors colleges tend to be located within universities. They represent one college in a diverse, multi-collegiate institutional setting that includes colleges of arts and sciences, business, engineering, and so forth. Honors opportunities, therefore, serve students in a wider range of undergraduate degree programs than those typically found at a four-year, liberal arts college. 
  • Since most honors colleges are located at comprehensive universities, they also tend to be part of a larger undergraduate population, having a greater number of honors participants. In my survey, two thirds of the respondent honors colleges were part of a total undergraduate student population of 10,000 or more students and had an honors student body of at least 500. In short, honors colleges tend to be larger and more diverse than honors programs, reflecting the institutions of which they are a part. 
  • In a university, a “dean” typically leads the honors college. This title may not mean much to you, but it means a lot to faculty members. In my survey, 86 percent of the colleges indicated that another motivation for their establishment was to raise the profile of honors education within their institution. Often the transformation to college status signifies that honors education has moved from the periphery to the center of undergraduate academics at that university. When the leader of honors education becomes a dean, he or she now “sits at the table” with other deans and more directly participates in university decision making.

How, though, do you figure out whether an enhanced structural position led to expanded academic opportunities? Start by scrutinizing the publicity surrounding honors colleges in university settings, and, for that matter, highly developed university honors programs. This publicity usually sounds like “the best of both worlds.” By invoking this phrase, the claim is that if you participate in their honors college, you will enjoy some of the best characteristics of a small liberal arts college while drawing upon the resources of a comprehensive research university. And the advantages of a research university—greater range of curriculum and undergraduate degree programs, more comprehensive research resources, and a more diverse and richer campus culture.

When looking for an honors school, explore these issues

The real test of the best of both worlds claim concerns the extent to which an honors college provides the experience of a quality liberal arts college—small classes; top teachers; exciting, personalized educational opportunities; and an intimate living-learning environment. These characteristics suggest some of the qualitative dimensions you need to explore.

  • Size matters, but in a tricky way. How large is large enough, but not too large? A quality liberal arts college must reach a critical mass, but at some point it could grow to a size that dilutes the intellectual intimacy commonly expected. The size of the overall undergraduate population also affects the range of appropriate sizes for the honors college. In a university with 10,000 undergraduates, a college of 200 may be too small to hold its own and one of 2000 may be too large to provide comprehensive academic opportunities for its students. 
  • Since liberal arts colleges offer four-year programs of study, expect a university honors college to offer honors academic opportunities across all four years. Many honors colleges emerged from essentially lower division honors programs, and one goal of the transition was to extend this foundation across all four years. You should carefully assess the comprehensiveness and range of honors curricular and other academic opportunities. 
  • Quality liberal arts colleges often require a senior thesis or project. Is this opportunity available, or perhaps even required, at the honors colleges you are investigating? 
  • Honors colleges that sit astride a comprehensive university are uniquely placed to facilitate cross-disciplinary studies. Does the college you are investigating offer opportunities for such study, perhaps including an interdisciplinary degree program? 
  • Liberal arts colleges pride themselves on the learning communities that continue outside of the classroom, particularly through their residence halls. A highly developed honors college in a university with significant on-campus housing should provide honors residential opportunities. You must determine just how extensive these opportunities might be. Are they just for freshman or do they exist across all four years? What percentage of honors students can be accommodated in these communities? 
  • Honors colleges possess some core physical identity. Universities who take the transition from honors program to honors college seriously generally invest in upgraded honors facilities and staffing. While “bricks and mortar” are secondary to the quality of honors students, faculty members, and instruction, they physically embody the seriousness of an institution’s rhetoric. Prospective students need to carefully scrutinize the real academic resources of an honors college relegated to shabby quarters on the fringe of the campus.

Three final points to consider when choosing an honors college

In addition to providing opportunities similar to those you might find at a liberal arts college, an honors college at a comprehensive university claims an advantage over the typical liberal arts college—the resources of a comprehensive university. The honors college at a comprehensive university, for example, should cultivate honors opportunities for the students who are in colleges, like engineering and business, that fall outside the traditional arts and sciences. Increasingly, these students make up a significant proportion of the undergraduate student body at universities, and a comprehensive honors college should provide avenues for them to participate as well.

Moreover, since honors colleges are commonly located within universities that pride themselves on their research/scholarship mission, honors students should have increased opportunities to participate in this mission. You should investigate how these opportunities are being cultivated in the honors college and how avenues of undergraduate research and scholarship are created and supported.

Finally, while it is important to understand what you should expect from a highly developed honors college, you also need to look at what is expected of you. When we made the transition from program to college at the University of South Carolina, we not only increased what we offered the students, but we also raised our admission and retention standards and enhanced what students would be expected to accomplish to earn our honors distinction. An honors college that fails to do these things may well be swamped by enrollment growth resulting from their high profile recruitment campaign.

Peter C. Sederberg, Dean Emeritus, South Carolina Honors College, University of South Carolina

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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