Honors and Career Success

So you are an extremely bright student, you’ve worked hard, taken AP courses and exams, scored in the 98th or 99th percentile on both the SAT and ACT–but know your chances remain slim at best for gaining acceptance to Harvard, Stanford, MIT, or Yale. You know that because the admissions process at any highly selective college at some point becomes more about what they need (geographically, ethnically, athletically, financially) than about you and what you’ve accomplished.

You also know that even if you are accepted by one of these schools your FAFSA shows that you would receive little or no financial aid because your parents, who don’t feel or behave like they’re rich, still have a combined income that means you or they will have to take out loans for you to attend.

You’ve always wanted to be, say, a mechanical engineer, having begun to analyze the way toys and radios and automobiles are put together since you were in elementary school or before. Maybe you feel a kinship to computers, they have given you countless hours of stimulation, satisfying a curiosity that wants to know a lot, about everything–or everything about a few things that fascinate you entirely. Maybe you started earning your own money before fifth grade, and now you wonder how the whole system of money works and  how you can make it work for you. Or maybe, maybe you are a dreamer, or an adventurer, something of a risk taker, yet sensitive and observant of people, landscapes, beauty or sadness.

But no Ivy League. No Stanford. No Chicago. No MIT.  Still, you want a career commensurate with your ability and proven work ethic.

Take heart, and look closely at the honors college or program at  your flagship public university–or even at similar programs out of state. If it’s a good one, it can be great for your education and for your career.  Here’s why:

1. Money: you will spend less than you would at a private university, probably get at least some merit aid regardless of your parents’ income, and graduate with little or no debt. Is there a better way to start your career than to do so without a lot of debt? The absence of a debt load gives you more freedom to choose a job or a career that you love rather than one you dislike but that pays more. Or…you can take that high-paying job and keep the money for a house or a nicer apartment.

2. Your chances of graduating on time, even if you’re attending a large public university, are strong. (And this saves even more money.) Priority registration, offered by most honors programs, allows you to register for the classes you need. Honors Carolina, at UNC Chapel Hill, had a four-year graduation rate of 95% for the class of 2012, higher than the Ivies. The average six-year rate for the 50 programs we reviewed in our book was 89%, higher than that at many prestigious private schools.

3. The people you associate with in honors will provide a solid cohort of smart, hard-working students who can reinforce your own desires to excel. They may be competitive, but not relentlessly so. On the other hand, the other students at the public university will remind you that the world is not the exclusive domain of the brilliant and the privileged. You will meet, know, like, and respect as many of these students as you will meet in honors. You will learn how to deal with all types of people, not just super-elite students who are mostly well-to-do. Learning these people skills can be as important to your career as what you learn in class.

4. By choosing the right honors program, you will have small classes for many of your lower-division courses. You will be asked a lot of questions; you will learn how to think and respond. You will learn that all subjects have something important to offer. You will develop interests in subjects that you never thought you would care about at all. You will grow personally and intellectually. You will develop critical thinking skills that will help you immensely in your career. At at time when even Forbes magazine publishes a piece favorable to the liberal arts and emphasizes the career advantages of an education that is both vocational and broadening, you can get that education.

5. Many honors programs require a senior thesis. Oh no, you say, a thesis! But a thesis or capstone project is real evidence that you can deal with depth and complexity on a sustained basis. In other words, they are evidence that you can succeed given a tough standard to meet, not just an exam or a grade, but something  you have created on your own. In the meantime, you have found mentors among professors, and they can be references for grad school or your first job. Undergraduate research that isn’t necessarily related to your own thesis is a frequent option in most honors programs. Honors colleges and programs typically do well in preparing students to compete for the prestigious Goldwater Scholarships, awarded to outstanding undergraduates in the STEM disciplines.

6. Most programs also offer enhanced opportunities for internships and other forms of experiential learning–for which you can receive honors credit. In today’s hit and miss hiring scene, internships are used increasingly by employers to vet potential hires without an up-front, permanent obligation. Armed with your skills from seminars and rubbing shoulders with lots of groups on campus, you will do well.

7. Many honors programs have their own study-abroad options, some of them even in technical or professional disciplines such as engineering. And–you can often get scholarship aid for these. It’s a global economy, it’s going to stay that way, and you can be a part of it.

8. You can probably name at least one Rhodes Scholar. Want to be one? Leading honors colleges and programs have people on staff who are designated to assist outstanding students in applying for Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, Gates Cambridge, Churchill, Boren, Udall, and Goldwater scholarships. And don’t forget the Fulbright Student awards for overseas study.

9. Want to be away from home but not so far away as Palo Alto, Chicago, Ithaca, or New Haven? Either your own state or one nearby has a public honors program that you can choose. You can use the savings in travel costs to buy a car, take a gap year, or invest in something you like.

10. As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has written, you don’t have to go to a famous elite college to become the person you want to be. Know this: many of the most successful people in the nation have degrees from public universities. If cost, distance from home, concern about too much elitism, or the whims of an Ivy admissions officer lead you to a public university honors choice, you can certainly succeed.