Why Your Teen Should Consider an Honors College

Honors colleges can be a cost-effective and highly rewarding undergraduate experience for top-notch students.
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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’s difficult 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 involves looking at several key factors.

Class Size and Number of Honors Courses

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

Despite its large size (over 1,000 honors students), The University of Mississippi’s Barksdale Honors College boasts more than 70 honors courses and class sizes of fewer than 15 students. A perusal of the ample and diverse honors course selections being offered by the honors college reveals that a large number of sections per course are also offered. For example, there are 29 sections of the freshman honors seminar set to run in fall 2018.

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

Does the “Honors” Experience Extend Outside the Classroom?

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

The University of South Carolina encourages freshmen to live in their honors-only residence, which also 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. Other schools, such as Michigan State University, 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 have a significantly lower sticker price than most private colleges (sans merit aid considerations). Let’s say a North Carolina resident is choosing between Wake Forest University, a well-regarded private school, and the honors program at UNC-Asheville. Here’s how the financials break down:

Wake Forest (room/board/meals/fees): $71,682 x 4 years = $286,728

UNC-Asheville (room/board/meals/fees): $19,708 (in-state rate) x 4 years = $78,832

That’s a savings of almost $208,000.

This is far from the only opportunity to save by attending an honors college in the Carolinas. Appalachian State University, East Carolina University, North Carolina State University and the University of South Carolina also offer affordable honors experiences.

Key Takeaway

Honors colleges can be a cost-effective and highly rewarding undergraduate experience for top-notch students. In the best-case scenario, your student 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.

Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. He is also a co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at collegetransitions.com.