College Value: Public Honors vs. Private Elites

Editor’s Note: This post was updated on September 21, 2017.

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 2016 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 exceptional 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 15 selective private elite universities, along with the six-year grad rates for those same schools; and the same data for the 15 most selective public honors colleges and programs. The mean test scores are based on (1) the average of the 25th and 75th percentile scores for the private schools; (2) the actual mean SAT scores or adjusted ACT scores for 14 of the honors programs; and (3) an estimate of the mean SAT scores and grad rates for the Echols Scholars Program at UVA. For Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and Notre Dame we have adjusted the ACT mean scores to an SAT score.

The mean SAT scores range from a high of 1545 to a low of 1460, adjusted to the new SAT. U.S. News used the old SAT scores for the 2018 edition.

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. If we had four-year grad rates for all the honors programs, we could also compare those.

We do not have that data for all programs, but the average dropoff from the six-year rate to the four-year rate among private elites is 8-10 percentage points. The limited data we have from public honors programs indicates about the same dropoff for honors grad rates, although the four-year rates of top public universities as whole are about 20-25 below the six-year honors rate.

Below are the 30 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 somewhat from our ratings of honors colleges and honors programs. This list is based on selectivity alone, which plays no part in our ratings.

University Avg Test Scores 6-yr Grad %
Chicago 1545 94
Illinois 1540 94.89
Oklahoma 1520 95
Virginia Echols* 1520 95
Harvard 1540 97
Columbia 1540 96
Rutgers 1510 92
Yale 1540 98
Northwestern 1540 95
Notre Dame 1540 95
Vanderbilt 1540 92
Princeton 1530 97
Georgia 1490 96.7
Rice 1520 93
South Carolina 1485 93
UT Austin 1485 91
Clemson 1480 94
Minnesota 1480 98.6
Stanford 1510 94
Duke 1510 95
Kansas 1470 91
Maryland 1470 93.5
North Carolina 1470 93.5
Tennessee 1470 90
UC Irvine 1470 98.6
Dartmouth 1510 97
Brown 1510 96
Washington 1460 93.3
Cornell 1480 94
Georgetown 1470 94


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