Honors Completion Rates: ‘A Dirty Little Secret’ or a (Very) Complicated Issue?

This post, by editor John Willingham, is about 4,000 words in length, so not a quick read. As the title indicates, the issue of honors completion is complicated. The post makes frequent references to statistical data. Our thanks to the 31 honors deans and directors who contributed data for this report and for the Fall 2018 edition of INSIDE HONORS, due out in early October.

This post was edited on August 6, 2018. All changes were minor.

First of all, what is an honors completion rate?

It is the percentage of honors program entrants who complete the required honors curriculum by the time of graduation. Many programs have more than one honors curriculum completion option; for example, entering freshmen may be required to finish 30 honors credits and write a thesis for the main option, or they might need to complete only 18 credits without a thesis for a lower option. Honors completion rates are not the same as graduation rates. Entering honors students, because of their strong credentials, will have very high graduation rates regardless of honors completion.

Completing the requirements of an honors program is typically not directly related to graduating with Latin honors (cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude) even though some universities do make the connection. Latin honors are most often tied to a student’s university grade point average or class standing. In many colleges and universities a student can graduate with Latin honors without taking any honors courses or writing a thesis. Many, if not most, honors program completers do also earn Latin honors.

At least two researchers have written that honors completion rates can be extremely low (in the 30 percent range) and that, because publicizing completion rates can be embarrassing to some programs and their parent institutions, the rates are a “Dirty little secret.” Academic studies leave the impression that having 50 percent or more of honors students complete one or more options could be, if not desirable, then acceptable. Using any set percentage as a standard is, however, questionable. (Please see below.)

University of South Carolina

The data we have received does provide evidence that some program completion rates are as low as 30 percent. On the other hand, the mean six-year completion rate in our own study of 31 honors programs, enrolling more than 64,000 honors students, was 58 percent. The years covered were 2010-2011—2015-2016.

Some honors educators believe that offering the lower, “mid-career” options increases the likelihood of at least some level of completion. The researchers cited above found evidence that mid-career completers are also inclined to add higher levels of honors completion before graduation.

Academic studies of honors retention, completion, and university graduation rates have focused on individual programs rather than on a significant range of programs. These studies have evaluated the impact that program curriculum requirements, entrance test scores, high school GPAs, housing, co-curricular activities, first-year seminars, and other factors have had on honors retention, completion, and graduation.

Our own work began with an analysis of 14 factors: program size; mean test scores of admitted students; number of honors credits required for completion; six-year graduation rate of honors entrants; six-year university graduation rates; university freshman retention rates; number of honors sections offered; average size of honors classes; number of honors sections in key academic disciplines; percentage of honors program members occupying classroom seats; comparison of main option and multiple option program completion rates; impact of a thesis requirement; the percentage of honors residence hall places available for the first two years; and the impact of requiring a separate honors application or credentials. After considering the potential value of each factor as an independent variable in our final models, we excluded some of factors based on tested co-linearity.

UT Austin

Again, we will publish a full statistical report in a separate post. We have also developed a formula for estimating target completion rates, taking into account variations in rates for honors completion, freshman retention, and university-wide graduation.

Below is a detailed discussion of the honors completion issue.



Honors educators and university administrators have a keen interest in achieving high honors completion rates. Honors students bring higher test score profiles to the university as a whole, and one would anticipate that being in an honors program would make it even more likely that these students would go on to graduate and, in the process, improve the university’s retention and graduation rates.

While the academic studies make it clear that honors student entrants, whether completers or not, have high retention and graduation rates, it is not altogether clear that they have higher rates than those of non-honors students who entered the university with equivalent credentials.

Evidence does indicate, however, that after one or two years in an honors program, students do have better critical thinking skills than similarly qualified non-honors students, probably due to smaller, interdisciplinary classes in the first year and greater interaction with faculty, mentors, and fellow students. And of course these skills and a greater likelihood of obtaining strong faculty recommendations should help students to gain entrance to prestigious graduate and professional schools or find highly desirable and remunerative employment.

Arizona State University

Students who do not actually complete all honors requirements do not perform as well academically as honors completers and also take somewhat longer to complete their undergraduate work. One reason: almost all honors students enjoy some form of priority registration.

The principal goals of honors educators and administrators are to improve the metrics of the host university by enrolling high quality students and to provide those students with an enhanced education that can compare favorably with the education one might receive in an elite private college or university.

Our data and other studies show that honors programs do meet the goal of improving university metrics. Honors entrants (not necessarily program completers) on average graduate at a rate 19.7 percentage points higher than the rate for their parent universities as a whole, according to our data. For programs housed in universities with relatively low university graduation rates, the difference can be more than 35 percentage points. (Of course, honors entrants who graduate make up a part of the graduation rate of the university as a whole.)

The main goal of honors educators, however, is to provide an enhanced education.

Honors completion rates should surely be one measure of meeting this goal. Low completion rates are an especially discouraging result given the cost and effort allocated to honors. “Non-participation or minimal participation of honors students is the honors equivalent of poor overall university retention and graduation rates,” according to one paper on the subject.

The quote is probably accurate when it comes to describing the mindset of honors educators. But comparing honors completion rates to, for example, the graduation rates of elite colleges and universities is problematic. Honors programs are a hybrid; this all but universal, structural reality clearly differentiates honors programs from most elite colleges, which generally do not have honors programs. (More on the hybrid issue below.)

Comparing honors completion rates with the graduation rates of the parent university as a whole is more reasonable, provided that there is some baseline ratio of honors completion rates to university graduation and freshman retention rates. Programs in our study with completion rates above the mean of 58 percent do, on the whole, match the graduation rates for the parent universities. Programs with completion rates below the mean, on average, fail to match the university graduation rate by about 20 percentage points. (These rates and ratios will be discussed in the next post, and, again, we have developed a baseline formula for estimating target completion rates.)

Honors programs seek to combine the best qualities of an elite private college with those of a large research university. In general, this means that the “elite private college” components of this hybrid model are smaller classes, more interdisciplinary sections and class discussion, more faculty mentoring, completion of a substantial honors curriculum and sometimes an undergraduate thesis, and a high level of collegiality in the form of co-curricular activities and access to honors housing.

The advantages of the “large research university” include academic majors in abundance, more undergraduate research opportunities, study under nationally recognized scholars, the enjoyment of big college football and other athletics, larger alumni networks, and life in a “college town” that is centered on the large university. Some of these advantages are, however, double-edged (see below).

The hybrid model, if realized, would be for many students an ideal college experience. But one can imagine how daunting it is to meet such expectations–to match private elites at their own game and to optimize the research university experience–all simultaneously. Honors and university administrators would like to see honors completion rates that equal or exceed parent university graduation rates, or even the graduation rates of elite colleges. But in the context of honors completion rates, some of the hybrid components are positive while others can work to lower completion rates.


Six of the 31 programs in our study had six-year honors completion rates of 80 percent or higher. (But recall that honors entrants, regardless of honors completion, do graduate from the host university at a much higher rate than the rate for all students, on average about 87 percent.)

These programs are, in alphabetical order, by university: Arizona State Barrett Honors College; CUNY Macaulay Honors College; University of Illinois Campus Honors Program; Penn State Schreyer Honors College; University of South Carolina Honors College; and the UT Austin Plan II Honors Program. Programs with rates of 70 percent or higher, in alphabetical order, are Clemson Calhoun Honors College and the Colorado State Honors Program.

Colorado St University

The six programs with completion rates of 80 percent or higher have striking differences. Barrett Honors College at ASU and the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State make very extensive use of honors contracts and mixed sections. Compared with the funding required for separate honors sections, the cost of contract and mixed sections is much less. Honors contracts allow a student to take a non-honors course for honors credit if the student “contracts” with the instructor to do some form of additional work. Mixed sections are those that include honors and non-honors students; they should be more rigorous or have an honors-only discussion or lab section. Schreyer Honors College at Penn State has an extremely large percentage of mixed sections—but honors students make up a high percentage of total students in those sections.

The UIUC Campus Honors Program and the UT Plan II program, both small in size, have a far more structured curriculum that does not include contract or mixed section credit. Plan II students receive most of their honors credit through Plan II-specific courses, even in subjects such as physics. CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College students take honors-only classes offered by the honors college or by academic departments. The South Carolina Honors College offers an impressive range of honors-only classes of the same type, and only about 11 percent of sections are mixed. The program does not offer contract options.

Contract and mixed sections give students a lot of flexibility. Many of these courses are upper-division, so students can continue to receive honors credit throughout their time in the program, without having to wait for a specific honors-only course to open. It is difficult for many large honors programs to achieve four-year involvement without utilizing contract and mixed sections. Yet the South Carolina Honors College and the Macaulay Honors College at CUNY both have more than 2,000 honors students and also have strong four-year participation.

One thing is clear: the hybrid structure itself has many variations. Here we should note that one honors college, the Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University, is not a hybrid at all because the whole campus is dedicated to honors education.

But based on statistical analyses of the data from all 31 programs, common predictive factors emerge: high university freshman retention rates; a substantial honors curriculum (30 credits or more); an emphasis on one completion option; and enhanced access to honors housing. Other positive factors include higher test scores, important to freshman retention rates; and smaller class sizes. Both of these factors have their greatest impact in programs with multiple, lower completion requirements.

As a variable in multiple regression, the impact of curriculum “flattens” because much of its effect appears in the variables for main option emphasis, honors grad rates, housing, separate honors application, and especially by participation if the latter is also a variable. The same flattening occurs with the impact of test scores, much of it expressed by the freshman retention variable.

Penn St Schreyer students

Programs looking for a “shorthand” method of assessing completion issues might find it in one overriding measure, which we call “participation”: the percentage of honors program members who occupy classroom seats in a given term. This participation rate correlates very significantly with honors completion, as one would expect. If an honors program has 1,000 members, and 1,000 honors credit classroom spaces are filled in a given term, then the participation percentage is 100. But because some honors students almost always take more than one honors class per term, it is common for participation percentages to be higher than 100. (If 1,000 members occupied 1,100 classroom spaces, then the participation rate would be 110 percent.)

The mean participation rate for all 31 programs was 129 percent. For the 16 programs with completion rates above 58 percent, the mean participation rate was 150 percent. For the 15 programs with lower completion rates, the mean participation rate was 108 percent.

For main option programs, the participate rate was 1.49; for multiple option programs, it was 1.11.

(So, a path to improvement might be >More Honors Housing >Emphasis on 30+ Credit Curriculum >Increased Freshman Retention >More Honors Class Sections and Disciplines>More Classroom Spaces Occupied>Higher Participation>Higher Completion Rate. This path, like most things in higher education, is impossible without funding. All honors deans and directors want to achieve high completion rates. The fact is that almost all honors programs do their best with the resources they have been dealt—and it is the rare honors student who does not benefit from a program even if he leaves after a year or two.)

Clemson University Honors Center

Out of 11 programs in our study with an honors curriculum requirement of 30 credits or higher, only one had a completion rate below 50 percent. The mean curriculum requirement for the six programs with a completion rate of 80 percent or higher was 37 credits. The overall mean for the 31 programs, when we averaged the multiple completion options for programs that offered them, was 27 credits.

One notable finding was that main option programs* with significantly stronger curriculum requirements (mean of 31.8 credits) had an average completion rate of 67.8 percent compared with an average rate of 48.5 percent for programs with multiple (lower) completion requirements (mean of 22.1 credits). This finding seems to contradict previous evidence and assumptions. We note that 24 of the 31 contributors to our study are either flagship or designated land-grant universities, but we have no data related to the differences between their programs and those at other types of institutions. The average U.S. News ranking of the 31 programs was 126, so the study was not limited to “public elites.” The highest ranking of any programs was 52. (In case anyone is curious: There is no significant correlation between the U.S. News rankings and honors completion rates.)

*(Included in main option programs are two programs that, while technically offering two options, have essentially the same total completion credit requirement for each option and have no mid-career option. In addition, option categories were also defined according to the curriculum requirements that honors programs offered for first-year entrants only, except we classified one program with a significant number of sophomore and junior transfers as a multiple option program.)

A precise calculation of curriculum requirements for multiple option programs would have included the proportion of honors students completing each option. In some multiple option programs more than 75 percent of students complete the highest option; in other programs fewer than 10 percent of students do so.

Although program size did not emerge as a clear predictor, the main option programs include four that have fewer than 1,000 honors students. Meanwhile, the smallest multiple option program has an enrollment of more than 1,300 students.

All 16 multiple option programs had an honors thesis option or requirement. The University of Arizona Honors College, the University of Arkansas Honors College, the Oregon State Honors College, and the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts, all with multiple options, do require an honors thesis for all options. Eleven of 15 main option programs had a thesis option, with nine listing a thesis as required. Regression models did not, however, establish that a thesis requirement or option had a significant impact on completion rates for the whole data set. But it appears that the combination of a significant thesis requirement along with relatively low university freshman retention rates (79-83 percent range) might contribute to low completion rates.

As for housing, the six programs with the highest completion rates offered .84 honors residence hall spaces per every first- and second-year honors student. The mean for all 31 programs was .53 residence hall spaces, or slightly more than one dorm space for first-year entrants only.

With respect to university freshman retention rates, the mean rate for the top six programs was 93.3 percent, while the overall mean freshman retention rate for 31 programs was 86.6 percent. Programs with completion rates at or above 58 percent had a mean university freshman retention rate of 88.9 percent; programs with lower completion rates had a mean university freshman retention rate of 84.2 percent. These bare statistics along with statistical models point clearly to freshman retention rates as being the most important institutional factor related to honors completion. They are co-linear with university graduation rates and almost as closely tied to the graduation rates for honors entrants, but are more significant than university graduation rates in relation to honors completion rates.

The top six programs had a mean SAT (ACT adjusted to SAT when necessary) of 1433, versus a mean score of 1406 for all 31 programs. The impact of test scores was, however, stronger for multiple option programs, though their mean test score was lower, at 1396. The mean test score for all main option programs was 1417, a difference of only 21 points. It appears, then, that the much stronger completion rates among main option programs as whole (67.1 percent versus 48.6 percent for multiple option programs) were not the result of proportionately higher test scores.

While all six of the programs with the highest completion rates were main option programs, the six programs with the lowest completion rates were all multiple option programs, with an average completion rate of 34.7 percent. For this group, the mean test score was 1358. Unlike the relationship of test scores to completion rates for the entire data set, it seems likely that, for this lowest subset, test scores would play a significant role; however, we could not confirm such a role statistically. Neither could we do so for the relationship of test scores and completion rates for the top subset.

We also calculate the ratio of enrolled individual honors students to all honors sections, and to total sections in 15 key academic disciplines. Both main and multiple option programs had about the same ratios. These ratios explain why the class size averages for main and multiple option programs are almost exactly the same (24 and 24.4, respectively). However, the absolute numbers of sections offered are much higher for main option programs because, with higher curriculum requirements, they have more students taking classes across all four years.

The six-year graduation rate for honors entrants in main option programs was 88.7 percent; for honors entrants in multiple option programs it was 85.2 percent. This difference would have an impact on university-wide graduation rates. For the six programs with the highest completion rates, the honors graduation rate averaged an impressive 91.3 percent; the honors graduation rate for the six programs with the lowest completion rates was almost eight points lower, at 83.5 percent. Freshman retention rates, test scores, and curriculum have the most impact on honors graduation rates, especially the first two factors, as one would expect. Freshman retention rates and honors graduation rates are remarkably similar.

It is somewhat unusual for honors completion rates to equal or exceed university graduation rates. Eleven of the 31 programs achieved such rates, according to our data. In alphabetical order, they are Arizona State’s Barrett Honors College; Colorado State Honors Program; CUNY Macaulay Honors College; University of Houston Honors College; University of Illinois Campus Honors Program; University of Kansas Honors Program; University of Nevada Reno Honors Program; University of South Carolina Honors College; Texas Tech Honors College; UT Austin Plan II Honors Program; and the Virginia Commonwealth University Honors College.

Texas Tech University


The part of the hybrid structure that is related to the “large public research university” component is difficult to measure. Of course the resources allocated by the university make possible the scores of academic departments and sub-disciplines available for majors and fund the honors program, or programs, as well. Relatively generous funding allows for more honors sections, smaller classes, undergraduate research, and more housing, all of which are important to participation.

But the one characteristic of honors programs and the public universities in which they reside that receives little attention, in relation to completion rates, is the enormous range of choices that are available. An honors student at a major public university can choose to persevere through a demanding honors curriculum, or not; can choose to attend every home football game and party, or not; can choose among hundreds of degree plans and change to one that is too time-consuming to allow for honors work, or not; join eight or ten of the two hundred groups on campus, or not; and choose to live off-campus or with a non-honors friend, or not.

Their counterparts at elite private colleges do not have a hybrid structure that allows such a range of choices. Of course they can change majors, or, perhaps, change residence halls. They can also choose to spend too much time partying. But they have a smaller range of majors and college organizations from which to choose; and college sports often have limited appeal. And most do not experience large, sprawling campuses where one can feel overwhelmed, although honors programs certainly make big-campus life more collegial.

A larger range of choices, then, is an inherent piece of the “research university” component of the hybrid model, and in our opinion, it can contribute to lower honors completion rates. Some characteristics of a large public university campus (large class sizes, registration issues, social distractions) often cause parents and students to choose smaller, private colleges even at greater cost. Honors programs mitigate but do not eliminate the potential impact of these factors.

The real question is whether greater choice is ultimately negative or positive. All students make good choices and bad choices; college is often the place where they learn the first big lessons about choice. Clearly, however, students who are mature and focused enough to enjoy the large university experience without overindulgence are most likely to take full advantage of their honors opportunities.

Students should also be strongly motivated on their own if they are to undertake honors study and succeed. Their counterparts at elite private colleges must demonstrate their motivation repeatedly, not least during the application process. Our study shows that, for main option programs only, honors admission requirements that require an honors-specific application or credentials beyond those required for regular university admission do have an impact on completion rates.

Twelve of 15 main option programs require honors-specific application materials. Eleven of 16 multiple option programs do. (Some programs simply gather data from the admissions office and then issue invitations to top students already admitted to the university.)


The issue of honors completion is not only linked to the question: Do honors programs actually deliver? Another question often follows: How do honors programs really compare with private elite colleges?

Above we noted that honors participation, a major statistical (and common-sense) factor in predicting honors completion rates, is enhanced to a large extent by substantial curriculum requirements, frequently including a thesis. Assuming that a student is in a public honors program with both a strong curriculum requirement and a high completion rate, does that student graduate with an education comparable with that attained by a student at an elite private college?

The hybrid model carries with it the assumption that students at elite private colleges complete a rigorous curriculum that usually includes extensive undergraduate research and an honors thesis, and that the honors model should strive to do the same.

Like the perception that honors completion rates should approximate graduation rates at elite colleges, the perception that most or all students at elite colleges necessarily pursue an especially rigorous path is inaccurate.

Princeton is the only university in the Ivy League that requires an undergraduate thesis for graduation. Likewise, Stanford, MIT, Duke, Swarthmore, Amherst, Williams, and other elite schools do not require a thesis. Reed, Chicago, and Bates do have a high number of students who complete an undergraduate thesis. If a student wants to graduate with Latin honors at many elite colleges, or especially to graduate magna cum laude or summa cum laude, or departmental honors, only then would the student have to write a thesis.

Anecdotal information suggests that only 20-25 percent of students at elite colleges complete a thesis or equivalent project. In addition, grades at elite institutions hover around an A-minus average, bringing into question just how much many of them are actually challenged by the courses they take.

So, yes, given appropriate effort, a student in a public honors program with a strong curriculum requirement and a thesis should receive an equivalent education or, perhaps, even a better education than most students at a private elite college. One can argue, however, that the relatively few students pursuing Latin or departmental honors at private elite schools can receive an even better education.

Finally, another comparison: Does the education of an honors student who is in a program with, say, a 55 percent completion rate, a 24-credit completion requirement, and no requirement for a thesis compare with that of his or her counterpart at a private elite college?

The private elite college will have a graduation rate about 5-10 points higher than the graduation rate of public university’s honors students. The student body at the private elite will, on the whole, be “smarter” but less diverse, less “real-life,” economically and otherwise. The honors student may well be challenged more by honors work than most students at the private elite are in regular classes. Both students may receive some financial aid, but at the private elite most of the aid is need-based or leaves funding gaps that could leave the student with large student loans. Meanwhile, the honors student and many of his classmates enjoy a large, renewable merit scholarship.

Not a simple choice.







UT Austin Announces Significant Increase in Financial Aid

UT Austin President Gregory Fenves notified alumni and contributors on April 20 that new, four-year financial aid awards will begin in the fall of 2018 and be distributed to new UT students to help them graduate on time and with less debt. The need-based funds are for in-state students and will benefit almost 3,000 additional UT students per year.

“The Texas Advance Commitment (TAC)ensures that Texas students with family incomes of up to $100,000 (Adjusted Gross Income), who have financial need, will receive guaranteed gift aid,” Fenves said. “Eligible students with family incomes up to $30,000 will receive, at a minimum, enough aid to completely cover their full tuition costs.”

In 2016, UT Austin implemented a $15 million increase in financial aid that benefited thousands of current UT students. “This year, we will make that funding permanent,” Fenves said.

According to the TAC website, the amount of funding a student will receive will depend on how much their family AGI is, as well as how much financial aid they have already received through grants and other scholarships.

“For Texas families with an AGI up to $30,000, awards range from $300 to more than $11,000 per year to ensure that tuition is completely covered.

“For Texas families with an AGI between $30,000 and $100,000, award amounts will range from $300 to $2,000 per year depending on the student’s financial need to cover tuition.”

These are four-year renewable awards. To renew the award and remain eligible, a student must:

  • Submit a FAFSA or TASFA every year
  • Continue to have a family adjusted gross income of up to $100,000
  • Continue to have financial need, as demonstrated on the FAFSA or TASFA
  • Maintain a 2.0 GPA and remain in good standing

The most prestigious merit award at UT Austin is the full-ride Forty Acres Scholarship, provided to 14-18 outstanding applicants each year from a list of more than 50 finalists. About 90 percent of the finalists are from the state of Texas. Students in the UT Plan II Honors Program are well-represented.

The extremely competitive Business Honors Program and the Engineering Honors Program also have Forty Acres Scholars, and Engineering Honors also awards more than $5 million in merit scholarships on its own each year. Most of the honors programs at UT can grant a very  limited number of OOS tuition waivers.

Other recent aid initiatives include Completion Grants in varying amounts, awarded to students who are close to graduating but have unmet financial need that would keep them from finishing their degrees.

Impact Scholarships “recognize high potential students from across the state who are making an impact in their local community, who will make an impact on the Forty Acres, and who will make an impact in their communities when they graduate. More than 30 incoming 2018 freshmen were surprised with a $48,000 scholarship ($12,000 per year) to cover the cost of their tuition for the students’ four years at UT Austin.”
RaiseMe Collaboration

“UT Austin has collaborated with RaiseMe to encourage students to consider the university when they begin their college search. The RaiseMe UT Austin collaboration encourages students early in their high school careers to engage in activities to encourage college-going behaviors, while earning micro scholarships for college. This platform enables students to earn up to $2,000 ($500 per year) in scholarship dollars when they attend UT Austin.”

Florida Atlantic University Wilkes Honors College Is Full-on Honors

There is a special pleasure associated with writing about honors colleges and programs in the state of Florida, especially when the spring weather in the northwest still feels a lot like November. But if you were a student at Florida Atlantic University’s Wilkes Honors College, you could have walked out of your honors dorm in early spring, strolled across the street, and taken in a spring training game at the Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, home of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Florida Marlins.

And if you happened to be a National Merit Finalist, you would be enjoying a full ride scholarship.

And if you wanted to take only honors classes, with honors students, and faculty dedicated to honors education, you could.

And if you wanted to go to the beach, well, darn, you’d have to drive 10 minutes or ride your bike almost a whole half hour to get to Juno Beach.

And if you wanted a private bedroom in a suite-style dorm, you would have one.

Or you could just head over to the shops and restaurants at Abacoa Village, less than a 10-minute walk away.

More than 50 years ago, colleges began offering honors “programs” and many of these offered a relatively small number of honors seminars and departmental honors courses, with the bulk of honors coursework required in the first two “gen-ed” years.

But in the last three decades honors programs have expanded, and now many universities have established honors colleges that offer special housing, advising, and an expanding array of courses. Even so, only a relatively small number offer their own honors degree or require more than 30 semester credits (or equivalent) in honors courses.

Of the honors programs and colleges that offer their own degrees, four are well-known: the Pitt Honors College, the South Carolina Honors College, the Virginia Echols Scholars Program, and the UT Austin Plan II Honors Program. Yet none of these require a student to take only honors courses to earn the honors degree, even though about a third of the total credits to graduate do come from honors courses.

Now, the Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University (or, to be precise, near FAU), not only offers its own degrees in a broad range of special majors but also provides honors-only courses to meet the full graduation requirements.

The WHC has its own faculty as well, and the college is actually located in Jupiter, Florida, about 40 miles north of the main FAU campus in Boca Raton.

Note: The WHC will receive a full rated review in the 2018 edition of our book, INSIDE HONORS, due out in the Fall.

“It is important to note that the Wilkes Honors College (WHC) of Florida Atlantic University (FAU) is a free-standing, liberal arts and sciences college” says WHC Dean Dr. Ellen Goldey, whose field is biology.  “WHC offers a four-year, all-honors curriculum, taught by its own faculty of thirty-seven full-time members, all of whom hold the highest degree in their field and represent the full range of liberal arts and sciences disciplines.

“Twenty-two other scholars and scientists hold affiliate faculty status in the College.  Requirements for the baccalaureate degree include three team-taught interdisciplinary courses, an internship or study abroad experience, and completion of a mentored senior thesis. With a student to faculty ration of 12:1, the WHC [with 424 students] offers the intimacy and close faculty attention of a private college, with access to all of the benefits and opportunities of a large public research university.”

Full completion of an “honors concentration” requires 111 credit hours of honors courses across four years, plus a 6-credit thesis. AP credits can count for up to 45 credit hours.

Students do not have traditional majors but choose pursue a major concentration: American Studies; Anthropology; Art; Biological Anthropology; Biological Chemistry; Biology; Business; Chemistry; Economics; English Literature; Environmental Studies; History; Interdisciplinary Critical Theory; International Studies; Latin American Studies; Law and Society; Marine Biology; Mathematics; Mathematical Science; Medical Humanities; Medical Science; Philosophy; Physics; Political Science; Pre-Med; Psychology; Spanish; Women’s Studies; or Writing.

Engineering and computer science are not offered at WHC, but students who spend the first two years at WHC can follow a pathway to engineering at the Boca Raton campus. Science and research are central to the mission of the college.

“The Senior Honors Thesis is required, so all students conduct original, mentored research, and many of our students conduct research for multiple semesters/years leading up to their thesis,” according to Dean Goldey.  “Multi-year research is especially common for our science students (who make up about 70% of our student population).  This is possible for a number of reasons unique to our campus: two world-renowned research institutes exist on our campus: the Scripps Research Institute – Florida, the only Scripps Institute outside of California, and the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience, the only Max Planck Institute outside of Europe.

“In addition, our campus houses FAU’s Brain Institute and Jupiter Life Science Initiative, each of which host top NIH-funded scientists.  Nearby is FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, providing students interested in marine biology with remarkable research opportunities.  Therefore, our undergraduates have unprecedented access to working with scientists in all STEM fields.  As a result, since 2002, sixty-six publications, most of them in top-tier, peer-reviewed journals, have included a Wilkes Honors College student as a co-author.”  [Emphasis added.]

First- and second-year students are required to live in MacArthur Residence Hall I or II. Dining is across the street at the DH Dining Hall. Upperclassmen can also live in MacArthur.

The mean SAT score for current WHC students is 1280; the mean ACT is 29. The college has a very high honors completion rate (students who complete all honors requirements and graduate) of 82 percent. The four-year grad rate is 70%, far higher than most public universities.

“The Jupiter and Boca Raton campuses are linked by a shuttle service that operates throughout the day. The total undergraduate enrollment of FAU is 25,500 and the main campus also hosts a small Honors Program and some departments offer students the opportunity to earn honors I the major, but these programs are run separately from the Wilkes Honors College.”

Will Florida Become the New Mecca for National Merit Scholars?

A few flagship universities–Oklahoma and Alabama, for example– are well-known for the generous merit scholarships, most of which provide the largest awards to national merit scholars or students with very similar qualifications. Now there are several other major players in this game, and all are in the state of Florida, home to several colleges on the rise in national rankings.

In March, Gov. Rick Scott, who is often at odds with higher ed professionals, signed Senate Bill 4. The bill passed the senate with unanimous support in mid-January.

Florida State has risen from 101st in U.S. News rankings for 2011 to 81st in the 2018 rankings.

The bill expands the full-ride Benacquisto Scholarship to include not only in-state National Merit and National Achievement Scholars but also out-of-state winners of these awards.

For out-of-state National Merit Scholars, the award is “equal to the institutional cost of attendance for a resident of this state minus the student’s National Merit Scholarship. Such student is exempt from the payment of out-of-state fees.”

The value of the award for in-state students at the University of Florida is $21,210 per year. For out-of-state students, it is $43,448 per year.

The bill provides $124 million to fund these and other merit awards in 2018-2019 alone. Here is a summary:

Expands merit-based state gift aid for high-performing students:

  • Reinstates full funding of the Bright Futures Florida Academic Scholar award at 100 percent of tuition and fees, plus $300 in fall and spring semesters to cover instructional materials and other costs, beginning in this 2017-2018 academic year and guarantees funding for 2018 summer term tuition and fees for Bright Futures Florida Academic Scholar awards.
  • New provisions of the legislation this year reinstate funding for the Bright Futures Florida Medallion Scholar award at 75 percent of tuition and fees for fall and spring semesters, beginning in fall semester of the 2018-2019 academic year and guarantee funding for 2019 summer term tuition and fees for Bright Futures Florida Medallion Scholar awards.
  • Expands Benacquisto Scholarship awards (full cost of attendance) to recruit out-of-state National Merit Scholar award winners.

“Senate Bill 4 ensures universities remain accountable to Florida taxpayers by refining university performance expectations to incentivize and reward state university performance excellence and recognition in academics, instruction, research, and community accomplishments and achievements,” according to a press release from the Florida senate.

Florida lawmakers have also designated “preeminent” and “emerging preeminent” universities. These universities must meet targets for graduation, retention, and post-graduation employment. Florida and Florida State were the first preeminent universities, and the University of South Florida has now moved from emerging preeminent to preeminent. The University of Central Florida will be next.

According to USF, “The designation will bring not only more prestige but more funding for the university. UF and FSU each received $17.3 million as pre-eminent universities this year, while USF and the University of Central Florida each received $8.7 million as ’emerging’ pre-eminent schools.”

The extra funds are used to elevate the quality and recognition of the universities by hiring eminent faculty members, improving grad and retention rates, and funding STEM programs. The University of Florida, for example, has risen from 58th in the 2011 U.S. News rankings to 42nd in the 2018 rankings. Florida State, meanwhile, has moved from 101st to 81st in the same time frame.


Honors Programs Plus Strong Merit Aid: ASU Barrett Honors College

Almost certainly the best-known honors college (or program) in the nation, the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State is also among the most effective at achieving “honors completion,” which means that a very high percentage of its students not only graduate but also finish all of their honors requirements, including a thesis, before doing so.

Unfortunately, it has been the case with many honors programs that not even a majority of first-year enrollees complete all honors requirements. (Even so, honors students who leave their programs still graduate from their universities at a very high rate.)

The other strengths of Barrett are a fully committed Dean who has a genuine passion for public honors education, plus some of the best honors residence halls in the nation. Notably, the residence halls can also accommodate virtually every first- and second-year honors student, rare for any honors program. The Dean also has a very large staff of more than 60 along with additional support from more than 40 faculty members, a good thing considering that Barrett, with almost 7,000 students, is probably the second largest honors college in the nation. (We estimate that the University of Alabama Honors College is probably the largest.)

This is an extremely important but sometimes overlooked factor in selecting an honors college. The Barrett support is evident in the very high number of its students who win prestigious national awards, especially Fulbright Student Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships for undergrads in STEM disciplines, Udall Scholarships, and Truman Scholarships.

Almost 60 percent of Barrett graduates go to top graduate or professional schools, while 30 percent choose immediate employment; the remainder choose travel or volunteer work.

Many of the honors credit classes at ASU are large, but the honors-only classes offered by the honors college average 15.9 students. Barrett also makes very extensive use of honors “contracts” that allow honors credit for additional work in regular class sections, some of which are very large.

National Scholar Merit Aid

Sorting out the merit aid options at Barrett is a bit difficult, but at the outset we estimate that more than 80 percent of Barrett students who have no demonstrated need receive an average of more than $8,000 in merit aid. With an average ACT of 29, new SAT of 1340-1350,  and a core HSGPA of 3.79, Barrett students receive generous support. All told, some 95 percent of Barrett students receive merit aid, and more than 40% receive need-based aid on top of their merit aid.

But…the term “full ride” is not used by ASU or Barrett in describing the aid. In a very few cases, the combination of university aid, Barrett aid, and need-based aid may come close, but such is not the norm even for national scholars.

The Dean told us last year that “The university also has uncapped national scholar awards that are the same amount for National Merit, Hispanic and Achievement Scholars. These are full out of state tuition for all OOS national scholars, even if it increases as they are at ASU, and $16,000 per year for in-state national scholars. Both in-state and out-of-state national scholars also receive $1,500 towards research costs for research they do, and $1,000 for any honors travel they carry out while at ASU.” (Note: these “extras” more than offset the Barrett charge to each student of $750 per semester.)

So what the school lacks in providing full rides it makes up for in funding “uncapped” merit aid for national scholars that is still quite generous. If you qualify, you should get it= uncapped, or no limits on number of awards.

The university has a link to a calculator that allows prospective award recipients to enter test scores, GPA, class standing, in-state or OOS residency, and national merit scholar status to determine the amount of aid and the resulting net cost of attending. Our “tests” of the calculator yielded aid totals somewhat less than reported above but approximate. It appears that much higher test scores might not affect award amounts nearly as much as NMS status.

The proof is in the pudding: More than 750 national scholars are now enrolled in Barrett. In a recent year, 117 National Merit Finalists and 105 National Hispanic Scholars enrolled as first-year students.

Of particular interest is that “National Merit Semi-Finalists who are admitted to ASU with an official SAT or ACT score on file with the university will receive a placeholder New American University Scholar award (such as a President’s, Provost’s, or Dean’s scholarship).” This placeholder award will be upgraded to the New American University Scholarship when

– The student has moved from National Merit Semi-Finalist status to National Merit Finalist status with the NMSC.

– The student lists Arizona State University as his or her first choice school with the NMSC by the NMSC’s posted deadline.

– The student has been admitted to Arizona State University.

The aforementioned President, Provost, and Dean’s Scholarships vary according to OOS status and test scores.

Other Merit Aid

For this category, variations in test scores, GPA, and class rank definitely make a difference. We found no evidence that these awards are uncapped, so even though the value of scholarships might not change much depending on your stats, the prospects of your receiving the award at all probably do depend on higher test scores, etc.

First, consider an OOS applicant with stats higher than the Barrett mean: ACT 32, GPA 3.9, top 5%). The calculator yields a President’s Scholarship valued at $14,000, leaving a net remaining cost of $26,170, about the same as the total cost for an in-state student. Using the same stats for an in-state student yields a President’s Scholarship valued at $10,000, leaving a net remaining cost of $14, 340.

Entering mean scores and GPAs for Barrett students (ACT 29, 3.79, top 12%) yields an OOS award of a Provost’s Scholarship valued at $13,000, with a net remaining cost of $27,170, about the same as the total cost for an in-state student. Entering the same scores for an in-state student yields a Provost’s Scholarship valued at $8,000, leaving a net remaining cost of $16,340.

Entering an ACT of 24, GPA of 3.50, class standing top 25% yields an in-state Dean’s Scholarship valued at $6,000. The same scores for OOS yield a Dean’s Scholarship of $12,500, and a remaining net cost of $27,670.

For purposes of comparison, we estimate that in-state National Merit Scholars who receive no non-merit aid or additional merit aid, end up with a net in-state cost of about $12,000. OOS National Merit Scholars with no aid outside the NMS award have a net remaining cost of about $14,400 a year. The OOS NMS award leaves a net cost roughly equivalent to that of the President’s Scholarship for in-state students.

Honors Programs Plus Strong Merit Aid: Alabama Honors College

Editor’s Note:  This is the second post in a new, lengthy series that will highlight ten or more public university honors colleges and programs that are (1) excellent academically and (2) offer substantial merit aid either through the honors program or the university as a whole.

For many readers it will come as no surprise to learn the the University of Alabama and its honors college offers some of the most generous merit aid packages in the country to high-achieving students. Yet our recent visit to UA sites revealed an even larger range of excellent scholarships than we had thought were available.

Before a listing of those awards (see below for national merit, in-state, and OOS), please know that the Honors College, despite being the largest in the nation (possibly as many as 7,000 students), nevertheless earned a 4.5 (out of a possible 5.0) rating in our latest book, Inside Honors. 

The major academic strengths of the college are a very large selection of honors classes, including honors sections in most academic disciplines; and an average honors class size of 26.6 students, even counting honors classes in the various departments. Honors students also do most of their honors work in honors-only classes, i.e., in classes that have few or no non-honors students.

Excellent honors residence halls are another strength of the college. The honors residence community includes Blount and Paty Halls, but almost 60% of honors students living on campus reside in Ridgecrest North and South, while another 28% live in Ridgecrest East and West.

“These buildings feature 4-bedroom suites with private bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living/dining area, and a kitchenette. The kitchenette has a full-size refrigerator, microwave, and cabinet space. The bedrooms feature height-adjustable beds with extended twin mattresses.”

Honors students are increasingly successful in winning prestigious Goldwater Scholarships, including the maximum of four allowed to a single college, in 2017. The award goes to outstanding sophomores and juniors who are working in the STEM disciplines. UA students have also won 15 Rhodes Scholarships and 16 Truman Scholarships.


National Merit Finalists can receive the value of tuition for up to five years or 10 semesters for degree-seeking undergraduate and graduate (or law) studies. In addition,

–One year of on-campus housing at regular room rate (based on assignment by Housing and Residential Communities.

A $3,500 per year Merit Scholarship stipend for four years. A student must maintain at least a 3.3 GPA to continue receiving this scholarship stipend. If a corporate-sponsored scholarship from the National Merit Corporation is received, the total value cannot exceed $3,500. (For example, if you receive a corporate-sponsored scholarship of $2,000 per year, UA will contribute $1,500 per year to reach the total stipend amount of $3,500. There is a one-time allowance of $2,000 for use in summer research or international study (after completing one year of study at UA).

Technology Enrichment Allowance $1,000.

National Merit Semifinalists are also eligible for extremely generous aid as Presidential Scholars, amounting to full tuition for four years. The award requires a 32-36 ACT or 1450-1600 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA. Recipients “will receive the value of tuition, or $41,800 over four years ($10,470 per year). Students graduating with remaining tuition scholarship semester(s) may use these monies toward graduate school and/or law school study at UA.”


To be considered for the Academic Elite Scholarships, a student must be accepted as a member of the University Fellows Experience (UFE). The student must maintain membership in the UFE to continue holding an Academic Elite Scholarship. Complete information on the UFE can be found on the University Fellows website.

There are a total of 8 academic elite scholars named each year. The pool of eligible applicants typically exceeds 1,000 students. These scholarships are awarded for 4 years. Seven Academic Elite Scholarship recipients will receive: Tuition plus one year of on-campus housing at regular room rate, $8,500 stipend per year, and a $1,000 one time technology stipend

The top Academic Elite Scholarship recipient will receive: Tuition, one year of on-campus housing at regular room rate, $8,500 stipend for the first year, $18,500 stipend for years 2-4, $5,000 study abroad stipend (to be used after at least one academic year is completed), a $1,000 one time technology stipend.

Eligibility for the University Fellows Experience requires an ACT score of 32 or a SAT score of 1450 (evidence-based reading and writing plus math) and a high school GPA of 3.8 who is accepted into UA will be eligible to complete the University Fellows Experience application. Applicants must first complete the Honors College application, and then must complete the UFE application. The general UFE application deadline is December 15.



First time freshmen who meet the December 15 scholarship deadline, have a qualifying score on the ACT or SAT and have at least a 3.5 cumulative high school GPA through the junior year will be eligible for the following merit-based scholarships:

Crimson Achievement Scholar: A student with a 25 ACT or 1200-1230 SAT score and minimum 3.5 cumulative GPA will be selected as a Crimson Achievement Scholar and will receive $8,000 over four years ($2,000 per year).

UA Legends: A student with a 26 ACT or 1240-1270 SAT score and minimum 3.5 cumulative GPA will be selected as a UA Legends Scholar and will receive $10,000 over four years ($2,500 per year).

Capstone Scholar: A student with a 27 ACT or 1280-1300 SAT score and minimum 3.5 cumulative GPA will be selected as a Capstone Scholar and will receive $16,000 over four years ($4,000 per year).

Collegiate Scholar: A student with a 28-29 ACT or 1310-1380 SAT score and a minimum GPA of 3.5 a student will be named a Collegiate Scholar and will receive $20,000 over four years ($5,000 per year).

Foundation in Excellence Scholar: A student with a 30-31 ACT or 1390-1440 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA will be named a Foundation in Excellence Scholar and will receive $32,000 over four years ($8,000 per year).

Presidential Scholar: A student with a 32-36 ACT or 1450-1600 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA will be selected as a Presidential Scholar and will receive the value of tuition, or $41,800 over four years ($10,470 per year). Students graduating with remaining tuition scholarship semester(s) may use these monies toward graduate school and/or law school study at UA.



Note: These are the same requirements as those above for in-state students, but the dollar amounts are larger. Please note especially the extremely high value of the Presidential Scholarship for OOS students.

Capstone Scholar: A student with a 27 ACT or 1280-1300 SAT score and a minimum 3.5 cumulative GPA will be selected as a Capstone Scholar and will receive $20,000 over four years ($5,000 per year).

Collegiate Scholar: A student with a 28 ACT or 1310-1340 SAT score and a minimum GPA of 3.5 will be named a Collegiate Scholar and will receive $24,000 over four years ($6,000 per year).

Foundation in Excellence Scholar: A student with a 29 ACT or 1350-1380 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA will be named a Foundation in Excellence Scholar and will receive $52,000 over four years ($13,000 per year).

UA Scholar: A student with a 30-32 ACT or 1390-1480 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA, he or she will be named a UA Scholar and will receive $76,000 over four years ($19,000 per year).

Presidential Scholar: A student with a 33-36 ACT or 1490-1600 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA will be selected as a Presidential Scholar and will receive $100,000 over four years ($25,000 per year). Students graduating with remaining scholarship semester(s) may use these monies toward graduate school and/or law school study at UA.

Honors Programs Plus Strong Merit Aid: Ohio State Honors

Editor’s Note:  This is the first post in a new, lengthy series that will highlight ten or more public university honors colleges and programs that are (1) excellent academically and (2) offer substantial merit aid either through the honors program or the university as a whole.

We begin the series with The Ohio State Honors And Scholars Program because it meets the criteria above and because we have been unable to review it in our two previous books. The program is coordinated by an honors team but delegates much of the course programming to major departments. The result is great for honors students but extremely difficult for us to measure for rating purposes.

The decentralized approach allows for the program to work with more than 5,000 students, making the program one of the largest in the nation.

Before a discussion of highly competitive merit awards for OSU students, it should be said that the University Honors Program is extremely selective despite its large enrollment. Our estimate of the average new SAT score for current students is 1470-1490, with an average ACT of 32-33. This equates to roughly the top 10% of OSU students.

While the university-wide six-year graduation rate is about 83%, the honors grad rate is about 91-92%. University Honors students can choose from 250-300 courses each term. More than a thousand first-year students enroll each fall. About 60% of first-year students (more than a thousand) choose among three main honors residence halls. Each residence has its own honor-related programming. Two of the residences are air-conditioned. The remainder of first-year honors students reside in other university residence halls, many of which have living/learning themes.

Merit Scholarships

The Honors Program coordinates the Eminence Fellowship, the most lucrative and prestigious award at the university. Eminence Fellows receive a “full ride” to OSU. In 2917, there were 17 fellows, all members of the honors program.

Given the high selectivity of the honors program, it is no surprise to find that fellows typically rank in the top three percent of their graduating classes and have an ACT composite score of 34 or higher or SAT combined Critical Reading and Math score of 1520 or higher.

Yet even impressive stats do not guarantee a fellowship. “Eminence Fellows demonstrate academic achievement, intellectual curiosity, high regard for humanity, and significant involvement both on and off campus.” Measuring factors such as a “high regard for humanity” is difficult, and so is the winnowing of fellowship applicants: more than 1,200 apply and only 17 fellowships were awarded in 2017.

On the other hand, the university awards about 300 Morrill Scholarships each year. The scholarships require both strong academic qualifications and characteristics that contribute to the diversity of the university.

Here, diversity means more than a racial or ethnic profile. The “targeted” students include not only ethnic and racial minorities but also first-generation, low-income, and Ohio Appalachian students. In addition, the awards may go to students whose gender is not typical of the major (e.g., women in engineering), or whose major is atypical but desirable (e.g., agriculture). Notably, Agriculture is one of the disciplines that offer many honors courses via the University Honors Program.

It is important to understand the three levels of Morrill awards:

Distinction equals the value of the cost of attendance for both Ohio residents and nonresidents, or a “full ride.” Only about 25 of the 300 Morrill awards are at the Distinction level. One hundred students are invited to interview for the 25 awards. Recipients likely need ACT 33 or new SAT ~1500 along with an extremely high class rank and achievements.

Prominence equals free tuition for out-of-state students.

Excellence: Equals the value of in-state tuition for Ohio residents.

The minimum stats for Prominence or Excellence awards are about 28 ACT or new SAT ~1320.

It is also possible to receive a Maximus Scholarship based mostly on stats and then be considered, usually later, for a Morrill or even Eminence award. The Maximus minimum stats requirement is high (top 3%, 32 ACT or 1450 new SAT) but not related to diversity goals as far as we can tell. The award approximates half the cost of in-state tuition, or about $5,000.

Finally, Provost and Trustees awards are $2,500 and $1,500 a year, respectively. The Provost minimum requirement is top 10%, 30 ACT, or new SAT of 1390. The minimum requirement for Trustees is top 20%, 29 ACT, or new SAT 1350 or higher.