Does Participation in an Honors Program Lower GPAs?

A recent paper by a prominent honors director and associate cites three main concerns of parents and students about participating in an honors program:

“They and/or their parents believe that honors classes at the university level require more work than non-honors courses, are more stressful, and will adversely affect their self-image and grade point average.”

Some students, the authors write, “are likely basing their belief on the experience they had with Advanced Placement (AP) classes in their high schools. Although AP classes are not specifically designed to be more work or more difficult, at their worst they can be little more than that.”

The authors of the paper, “The Effect of Honors Courses on Grade Point Averages, ” are Dr. Art Spisak, Director of Honors at Iowa the University of Iowa and Suzanne Carter Squires, a Churchill Scholar and former Director of Assessment for Iowa honors. Dr. Spisak is also the current President of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC).

As the title states, the authors focused on whether honors participation does in fact lower GPAs, probably the overriding concern of parents and students.

After reviewing and citing previous related studies and conducting two in-depth studies of their own at a large public research university, the authors conclude that “the findings show that the perception of honors courses as adversely affecting GPAs is invalid.”

The previous studies indicated that honors and non-honors students of equal measured ability had about the same GPAs or the honors students had higher GPAs in the first year and about the same GPAs going forward.

An important finding of one study also showed that honors students have “higher self-concepts than do high-ability students not participating in an honors program.”

The first study by Spisak and Squires “began with a cohort of 786 students that was unusual in its makeup and, for that reason, especially apt for the purpose. All 786 students were part of an honors program at a large, public, R1 university. They all had earned their way into the program via a minimum composite ACT/ SAT score of 29/1300 and a high school GPA of at least 3.8. Once in the program, they had to maintain a university GPA of 3.33 to maintain membership.”

“Of the original cohort of 786 honors students, the study considered only the 473 students who had remained in the program for at least two years.” This would appear to indicate a low retention rate, but the program at the time automatically enrolled students who met the stats requirements and many dropped out. Most honors programs use invitation-only approaches now.

“The findings from this first study were that the mean GPA of honors students who took honors classes (3.74) was statistically the same as that of honors students who took no honors courses (3.70).

The second study by Spisak and Squires differed from the first in that it compared honors students’ GPAs in their honors classes to their GPAs for all their classes. The first study, in contrast, compared GPAs of one group of honors-eligible students who took honors courses to those of another group of honors-eligible students who had not taken honors courses.

The results showed that “honors students’ GPAs in their honors courses are statistically the same as their GPAs in all their classes. Thus, the conclusion for the second study is the same as for the first study: honors courses do not adversely affect the GPAs of honors students.”

So…if honors students in honors classes have the same GPAs (or even higher) that students of equal ability in non-honors classes, can one conclude that honors classes are not competitive or demanding?

The likely answer: honors classes typically cover more material and in greater depth than non-honors classes, but smaller class sizes, greater engagement with professors, and encouragement or competition from peers create more interest and focus.