College Value: Public Honors vs. Private Elites

Editor’s Note: This post was updated on February 19, 2015, to reflect the most recent data….

It is difficult to compare public honors colleges and programs, on the one hand, with elite private institutions on the other.  Data for honors colleges and programs is a difficult to obtain sub-set of university-wide data.  We do have a large amount of honors-specific data based on our 2014 survey and analysis of 50 leading programs, but the degree of overlap with that data and the data for the private elites is limited.

The information below may help exceptionable high school students to decide what their alternatives might be if the elite private school of their choice either rejects them or, in providing only need-based aid, still leaves middle-income families with some big bills to pay.  Many public honors programs have non-need-based aid for exceptional students, and the stats below show that, regarding selectivity, honors programs can provide top students with a strong cohort of equally bright peers, often as bright as the students attending top private schools.

What we have is this: the mean two-part SAT scores for the 18 most selective private elite universities, along with the six-year grad rates for those same schools; and the same data for the 18 most selective public honors colleges and programs.  We have separated the 36 schools into four sections based on their mean SAT scores.  The mean test scores are based on (1) the average of the 25th and 75th percentile scores for the private schools; a(2) the actual mean SAT scores for 15 of the honors programs; and (3) sound statistical estimates of the mean SAT scores and grad rates for the Echols Scholars Program at UVA, the L&S Honors Program at Michigan, and the Campus Honors Program at the University of Illinois.  For Washington University, Vanderbilt, and Notre Dame we have adjusted the ACT mean scores to an SAT score.

The mean SAT scores range from a high of 1515 to a low of 1410.  The highest mean two-SAT scores are for the University of Chicago and the Echols Scholars Program at UVA.

What does this illustrate?  For one thing, most people do not realize how selective many public honors programs are, and for another, it is interesting to see if the high selectivity of all these schools and programs results in similar graduation rates.

Below are the 36 schools listed in the order of their mean SAT scores, regardless of private or public status.  The next figure shows the six-year grad rate.  Please understand that this listing varies considerably from our ratings of honors colleges and honors programs.  This list is based on selectivity alone, which plays no part in our ratings.


University SAT Range 6-Yr Grad Rate
Chicago 1470-1515 93
Virginia Echols Scholars 95
Illinois Campus Honors Program 93
Harvard 97
Princeton 97
Yale 98
Columbia 96
Northwestern 94
Rutgers SAS Honors 96
Stanford 1455-1465 96
Georgia Honors Program 92
Dartmouth 95
Notre Dame 95
Rice 91
Vanderbilt 93
Washington U 94
Duke 94
Clemson Calhoun Honors 1431-1453 95
Michigan L&S Honors 96
Tufts 92
UNC Chapel Hill Honors Carolina 97
Minnesota Honors Program 92
Brown 94
Carnegie Mellon 88
South Carolina Honors College 92
UT Austin Plan II Honors 1410-1423 94
Cornell 93
Kansas Honors Program 97
Ohio State Honors Program 91
Auburn Honors College 86
Oklahoma Honors College 91
Tennessee Chancellor’s Honors 92
Washington Honors Program 94
Connecticut Honors Program 92
Georgetown 92
Penn State Schreyer Honors College 94

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