Honors education is an exciting phenomenon that drives and defines excellence in an increasing number of public universities in this country. The ever-improving honors programs are important to universities because they attract high-caliber students, and they are important to students because many now have paths to excellence that did not exist in their home states until recently. Beyond these benefits, public honors programs are the contact point for igniting creative combinations of high-level research and undergraduate teaching excellence, at a relatively affordable price.
What follows is a description of six types of programs and separate honors colleges. The hope is that after reading this essay, prospective students and their parents might gain some insight into which universities are likely to offer them an honors education that is compatible with their needs, abilities, and interests. This essay is not a list of rankings or evaluations. Some of that information is available on other pages and posts, while all fifty universities’ honors programs have detailed evaluations in our book. This piece is simply intended to give you a reasonably detailed overview of program types.
As each type of program is discussed, the universities that seem to fit each type will be listed, along with pertinent information about academic programs, college towns, curriculum, and college traditions. In all, fifty leading public universities will be listed. An in-depth discussion of these universities will be forthcoming in the spring of 2012 with the publication of a guidebook titled A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs. In that guidebook, the honors colleges and programs will be categorized according to their admission requirements.
While there are hundreds of honors programs and colleges and universities large and small, the largest enclaves of honors students are generally within major public universities, most of them with total undergraduate enrollments of more than 25,000 students. These honors programs typically seek to create a smaller, more cohesive on-campus environment that complements and draws from the larger university. Public universities often describe their honors programs and colleges as providing something like a “liberal-arts experience” for highly-qualified students, along with the opportunity to work with some of the most esteemed research faculty in the nation.
Here we discuss the state flagships and established land-grant universities because they generate the broadest interest. Whatever the honors model may be, the most important factors are the frequency of honors contacts (courses, faculty, research, honors communities, internships, community services); the duration of honors experiences (four-year curriculum, multiple majors, extensive research, foreign study, thesis, or “capstone” projects); and the quality of the contacts and experiences (best teachers, best research, best honors communities, best foreign study, internships, etc.).
We have identified six types of honors programs.
The first we will call the Public Elite/Research-Intensive variation. University honors programs in this category include Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, Washington, and Wisconsin. The academic departments in these schools frequently rank in the top 25 nationally among all universities, or higher, and that is the basis for using the word “elite” to describe them. The term is not intended to mean that the honors programs at all these universities are necessarily superior, though some of them are.
The honors experience they offer, at their best, probably comes closer to the experience of students in the most prestigious private universities that have world-class academics–the Ivies, Stanford—because most of the faculty at all of these institutions, public and private, are strongly committed to research. Even at Harvard and Yale, students have discussion sections led by graduate students and the occasional large lecture class so that world-renowned professors can pursue their research interests.
Of course, the frequency of honors-level contacts at the private elites is continuous: virtually all of the students and faculty are among the best in the nation. The entire campuses are honors communities. Courses across all four years are demanding, and most classes after the first year are small and taught by tenured faculty or distinguished lecturers. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford (HYPS) lead all universities in the number of prestigious scholarships won by their students.
The Public Elite/Research-Intensive honors programs, on the other hand, exist within very large universities. The true extent to which they approach the HYPS level depends on the involvement of their best research faculty with honors education; the presence of their best teachers in honors classes; the number of small classes; the honors curriculum and the span of honors courses across four years; the effectiveness of the honors community; the rigor of thesis and research work; and the level of commitment to a culture of excellence, including prestigious scholarship awards.
These public universities (except some of the UC campuses) have well-known Division I sports teams, and college sports and associated traditions are an important part of the college experience for some honors students. Most of these schools can claim that they offer the complete college experience: academics, tradition, proud athletic teams, and important connections, especially within the state. The honors students in these public elites (there are other public elites, as we shall see later) differ to some extent from the student body as a whole, and therefore may need or benefit from honors communities.
Yet their difference from the whole student body, generally made up of highly-qualified students at all these institutions, is not so pronounced as to make honors students “big fish” who truly stand apart from other undergraduates. Indeed, the honors program at Illinois champions the idea that its students should not be separated from the student body. Partial evidence of the thin partition between honors students and non-honors students is that none of the universities in this group have a separate honors college.
What honors students at these universities may lose from not having continuous contact with other elite students (to the same extent as students at HYPS), they probably gain by knowing a broader range of fellow students. The overall attitude toward honors students may be more expectant than it is indulgent. This attitude is likely not far removed from the attitude toward students at HYPS.
Most of these universities are located in famous college towns, such as Ann Arbor, Madison, or Santa Barbara, or in exciting cities with an abundance of cultural and entertainment options, such as Los Angeles, Seattle, San Diego, and Austin.
The second variation on the liberal arts-research honors hybrid is the Public Elite/Pervasive Honors type. Academic departments at these universities are usually in the top 30 nationwide. The University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are the best examples, although the University of Michigan, despite its much greater size, has many of the same qualities (as does UC Berkeley, which does not offer a university-wide honors program). UC Berkeley and Michigan lead public universities in departmental academic rankings.
The size and greater research scope at Michigan places it in the public elite/research-intensive group rather than alongside Virginia and North Carolina. The College of William & Mary, though a public university, is more of an outstanding but somewhat outsized liberal arts college than it is a major research university.
The term “pervasive honors” indicates the consistently high quality of faculty, students, and instruction at Virginia and UNC across all four years. Honors-level contacts are frequent at both, especially at the smaller Virginia campus, and departmental rankings are strong, especially at UNC. As a result of the pervasive honors atmosphere, a student in the honors programs at these two schools may, or may not, receive a significantly different education from that of a student who is not in honors.
The two schools have relatively small undergraduate populations to go along with their outstanding academic credentials. The culture of excellence at both is evidenced by the number of prestigious scholarships won by undergraduates and graduates. Both have venerable campus traditions, and North Carolina, of course, is famous for its basketball program. Charlottesville is another wonderful college town, and the UNC campus is near that of its arch-rival Duke, and is an integral part of the Research Triangle area of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill.
Outstanding public universities seek a creative, stimulating balance between academic research and undergraduate teaching, and these two universities may be the most successful in achieving that balance for the broadest range of undergraduates. One result of this balance is an attitude toward students that combines the highest expectations with extensive involvement. Although both UVA and UNC are bigger than private universities such as Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Brown, Duke, Emory, and Washington University in St. Louis, the college experience available to the best students at the two public universities is essentially an equivalent option for students who might otherwise consider the private institutions.
The third variation of the research/liberal arts hybrid is the Strong Research/Honors College type. Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan State, Oregon, Penn State and Pitt are examples, as are Arizona and Arizona State. Most are well-established academically, with many departments in the top 50 nationally, and some departments of the highest distinction.
Even though Arizona and Arizona State do not fare well in the U.S. News survey, their honors colleges and departmental strength suggest that they are significantly better than their rankings. Academic departments at Oregon have an average national ranking in the top 50, although Oregon does not rank highly in many surveys. U.S. News takes much more notice of Penn State, ranking it, deservedly, among the top 50 national universities. The research emphasis is strong at all these institutions; yet because of generous private donations or other reasons, all have honors colleges rather than honors programs. Many offer excellent financial support, especially Penn State, Indiana, and Arizona State.
Maryland is a pioneer in living-learning communities and is academically impressive across the full range of subjects. Penn State has the nationally-known Schreyer Honors College, whose students are extremely successful in earning prestigious awards and entrance into graduate and professional schools. Indiana, Massachusetts, and Michigan State have outstanding study-abroad programs. Indiana’s Hutton Honors College allows concurrent study with the university’s high-ranking business school. Michigan State likewise has a strong business school. Massachusetts is especially strong in computer science. Pitt allows its honors students to arrange their own course combinations that meet the overall requirements of the unique B. Phil degree offered only by the honors college. Pitt honors graduates are earning national recognition as winners of Rhodes Scholarships.
The separate honors colleges at these universities likely provide most of the honors contacts and experiences, and there may be more awareness of who is or is not an honors student on these campuses than there is on the campuses of the public elites. Prospective students who want or need more structured or sustained contact with other highly-qualified students might prefer one of these honors colleges, as opposed to an honors program at a public elite university. Often, students in this honors college group could gain admission to Michigan, Illinois, or even an Ivy, but choose one of the honors colleges because of better financial support or a greater degree of structured contact.
Another variation is the Comprehensive Research/Honors Distinct model, which includes the greatest number of universities among the fifty being reviewed. These honors colleges and programs have good academics across the full range of subjects, but their honors students may be more clearly differentiated from the overall undergraduate populations than honors students are at most of the other schools mentioned above. Some of these honors programs have admission standards that are equal to or higher than those of the public elites.
Among the universities in this group are Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Rutgers. Departmental academic reputation is strongest at Ohio State, Colorado, Florida, and Rutgers, while most of the other schools, notably Delaware, Georgia, and Kansas, have honors programs that have produced high numbers of prestigious scholarship winners and a high percentage of successful students in graduate and professional schools.
For students who do not become “honors completers,” the strength of academic departments should be of special interest so that, even without an honors diploma, the students will have completed a major course of study that should serve them well. On the other hand, if one of these universities has departmental rankings that are solid but not distinguished, one reason might be a greater emphasis on teaching than on research. Any of the universities in this category, however, have the facilities and expertise necessary to provide quality research opportunities that are part of the honors equation.
The frequency, duration, and quality of honors experiences at these universities vary. Some of these universities have a well-defined honors curriculum that spans all four years; honors housing; priority registration; exciting study-abroad programs; thesis or research requirements; enhanced research opportunities; and exemplary support for winning prestigious scholarships. Some lack one or more of these elements. It is critically important for prospective honors students to look for evidence of a continuing commitment to excellence in honors colleges and programs, and it is always wise to visit the school and honors staff as a part of the investigation.
Another variation is the Small Public University/Honors group. The universities housing these honors colleges and programs may not have many nationally-ranked academic departments or appear on the first page of the U.S. News list of national universities, but the honors programs at some of these institutions have the greatest potential to raise the profile of their universities and elevate the level of excellence for honors-caliber students. Four of these are honors colleges in the South: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Four more are in the Northeast: Binghamton, Stony Brook, the University at Buffalo, and Vermont. And one is in the Pacific Northwest: Washington State.
Binghamton and Vermont have a big advantage when it comes to approximating the atmosphere of a liberal arts college on a public university campus. With undergraduate enrollments of less than 12,000, they are the two smallest universities among the fifty we are reviewing. And Stony Brook, with just over 16,000 undergraduates, is among the smallest, almost exactly the same size as Virginia. Of the universities in this group, Stony Brook has the best overall ranking of academic departments, and is especially strong in math, physics, earth sciences, and political science.
The honors communities at all four of the northeastern universities are small, and some are highly selective. Washington State has the most comprehensive range of academic departments, including engineering. It also has the largest number of undergraduates in this group: 21,816.
Ole Miss is also a small state university with about 14,000 undergraduates. But the honors college there, while small, stands out as a model of excellence and high achievement at the university. The same can be said of all the honors colleges at these southern universities. South Carolina has one of the most extensive honors curricula in the country, ensuring strong honors experiences across all four years. South Carolina also has the highest rated academic departments among the southern group, and, next to Arkansas, has the best record in the entire group for winning prestigious scholarships. South Carolina and Arkansas also lead in the quality of their business programs. Arkansas benefits greatly from Walton family donations. Alabama has seen a recent surge in prestigious undergraduate scholarship winners.
Honors students, especially at the southern campuses with separate honors colleges, benefit from the best teachers on campus—not academic stars nationally, perhaps—but teachers thoroughly involved with undergraduate education. If some of the universities in this group do not appear on the surface to match up with the public elites in the research portion of the honors hybrid equation, their honors students probably enjoy a net gain as a result of the increased personal attention and support, financial and instructional, that they often receive from these colleges. More extended individual time with faculty can make undergraduate research rewarding in ways that are less likely to occur at some public elites, including the opportunity to present joint papers at academic conferences. The colleges also give in-state students of high ability an attractive option in their home states.
The last type presented here is the Business-Engineering/Honors Expansion group. All of these universities are well-known and respected for their engineering, computer science, agriculture, and business departments. For some of the schools, honors colleges or programs are very recent additions, or they are still in the process of development. This does not mean that honors at these universities is always an afterthought, although combining extra honors requirements with any engineering major can be extremely challenging. The honors programs at these schools help to attract non-engineering majors and allow business and engineering students to venture more deeply into the humanities and sciences.
The universities in the group are Auburn, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Iowa State, North Carolina State, Purdue, Texas A&M, and Virginia Tech. Of these, Purdue, Georgia Tech, and Texas A&M have the broadest range of academic departments as well as the highest ranked, not only in business and engineering but also in computer science, chemistry, earth sciences, and mathematics. Georgia Tech and Purdue not only have the strongest engineering departments in the group, but they also have undergraduate business programs ranked number 28 and 24, respectively, in the nation.
Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, and North Carolina State lead the group in the number of students who have won prestigious scholarships, many of them the Goldwater award, which is presented to outstanding students in science, technology, and engineering. The engineering department at Virginia Tech is also highly ranked at number 15.
Texas A&M is implementing new honors requirements in 2012. The honors program at Georgia Tech is only a few years old. The Calhoun Honors College at Clemson is well-known and highly respected. North Carolina State is an integral part of the Research Triangle with an engineering department ranked number 27.
All of the universities in this group have the full array of college and sports traditions. All but Georgia Tech and North Carolina State are located in relatively small college towns.
While it is true that this essay does not discuss every honors program, public or private, the reader might be able to gain some insight into the culture and components of any worthwhile honors program. Please respond with questions or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
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