Honors College, Honors Program–What’s the Difference?

Revised, September 8, 2014…

After a lengthy analysis of staffing, class schedules, and honors curriculum in preparation for our new book to be released this Fall, we can say that there are significant differences between honors colleges and honors programs.

On the other hand, despite these differences, both honors colleges and honors programs are equally effective in graduating students who go on to win major awards and acceptance to prestigious graduate program.

In this post, we will focus on the differences between the 25 honors programs we have reviewed and the 25 honors colleges also under review.  All of the colleges and programs are at major public national universities, including most flagship institutions.  The total honors student enrollment at the 50 universities is approximately 90,000.

Here are some figures that illustrate the differences between honors colleges and honors programs:

1. Size–The 25 honors colleges have an average enrollment of 1,900 students, versus the average enrollment of 1,492 in the 25 honors programs.

2. Staff– Honors colleges have more staff members per student.  In honors colleges, the ratio of students to honors staff is 141.7. In honors programs, the ratio is 162.4. It is possible that honors programs have more indirect staff support from, say, the dean of undergraduate education, but the ratios above are based on actual honors staffing figures in 2013-2014.

3. Structure–The additional staff at honors colleges appears to contribute to the higher percentage of a “blended” honors structure at honors colleges.  By a blended structure, we mean that there are both honors-only seminars (often interdisciplinary in nature) offered solely by the honors college, along with many honors classes focused primarily on specific academic disciplines. Fourteen of the 25 honors colleges fall into this category, versus 10 of the 25 honors programs.  Six honors colleges have a department-based honors structure, while eight honors programs feature this more decentralized structure.  This means that, speaking in general terms only, honors programs might be more appealing for students who are more focused on their majors and less interested in the broader approach typical of most seminars.

A relatively small number of colleges and programs have a core structure.  The core programs are almost exclusively based on a set of honors seminars and colloquia designed to offer interdisciplinary perspectives on the humanities, social sciences, math and science, and fine arts.  Often, these courses count for and replace the Gen Ed courses taken by non-honors students.  Honors core programs may or may not require an honors thesis.  Most do not offer a lot of upper-division or department-centered courses.  Five honors colleges are based on the core model, versus seven honors programs.

Average Honors Class size–Honors colleges have a better ratio of students per class section, using data from the Spring 2014 term.  (For colleges on the quarter system, we use a formula to equalize quarter sections with semester sections.)  What honors colleges and programs say about having smaller classes is mostly true:  Honors colleges average about 19.8 students per section, and honors programs about 22.5 students per section for all honors courses.  Please know, however, that both honors colleges and honors programs have some large classes, typically in science.  They offset this fact by offering multiple small all-honors discussion sections and labs.  We did not count discussion sections or labs in calculating class size, only the main class sections.

There is disagreement about the relative value of honors contract classes.  Clearly, such classes do not require all-honors enrollment or staffing and can be accomplished without reducing the “credit” a given professor receives for teaching larger classes, in which a few honors students do extra work.  They are therefore extremely cost-effective for the university.  They can also be a boon for some honors students, who find that they can in fact get into that hard class they need to graduate, even if it’s not an all-honors class.  On average, honors colleges allow 7 contract credit hours and honors programs allow 8.9 contract credits.  (Some colleges and programs, however, allow up to 30 hours of contract credit.)  It is very important for prospective students to gain an understanding of the types of courses that can be counted as honors credit.

Big Fish in the Pond–Using a formula that compares average (mean) honors test scores to average test scores for students in the university as a whole, and students in the top quarter of the university as a whole, we find that there is a greater gap between students in honors colleges and their non-honors classmates than there is between students in honors programs and the non-honors students in their universities. So, based on test scores along, honors college students have a somewhat higher chance of being regarded as the “smart kids” on campus.

Honors housing–Here, although there are many exceptions, honors colleges tend to offer more amenities such as suite-style dorms.  One reason for this is that many prominent public universities have made a conscious decision not to contribute to the “big fish” perception and do not provide separate honors housing at all.  In this group are UCLA, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Please bear in mind that these statistics describe general characteristics of honors colleges and honors programs.  There are many honors programs, especially, that mirror all of the features associated with honors colleges.


Honors Colleges vs. Honors Programs

The work we have done over the past six months has yielded a few insights into the differences between Honors Colleges and Honors Programs. As it turns out, there isn’t much difference until we come to the “value-added” implications, called EXCELLENCE IMPACT in our review (see below).

In our category of OVERALL EXCELLENCE, which includes a metric for prestigious undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships, the mean score for Honors Colleges was 67.82 out of 100; the mean score for Honors Programs was 68.16. This very small difference is statistically insignificant. Even though we show statistical differences as small as .01, we do so because we are presenting rankings within rankings…within rankings. But in terms of OVERALL EXCELLENCE and HONORS FACTORS only, a difference of 2-3 whole points between programs is still small.

Our METHODOLOGY page has an expanded discussion about interpreting our results. We urge readers to refer to it.

In the sub-category of honors housing, the Honors Colleges have a slight but real edge, in this case with an average score of 8.07 versus the 7.44 average score for Honors Programs. Since the maximum score in honors housing is 10.0, this small difference is somewhat significant, although three honors programs do not offer separate honors housing, and their scores in this sub-category reflected that fact.

When it comes to HONORS FACTORS only, the Honors Colleges do better, averaging 57.04 out of a possible 75.0 versus the Honors Program average of 55.77. Again, however, this small difference is not too significant

But when we consider EXCELLENCE IMPACT, or the difference between the national rankings of a university as a whole and our evaluation of each university’s honors programs, there is a significant difference.

Only 24 of the universities under review had honors evaluations that bettered their national rankings. Half of these were honors colleges, and half were honors programs. But…the honors colleges that showed “value added” for their universities as a whole had an average value-added (EXCELLENCE IMPACT) rank of 9.83–a top-ten performance, on average. The honors programs, on the other hand, had an average value-added rank of 14.33.

It must be said that many of the “public elites,” such as Michigan, North Carolina, Washington, and Virginia, offer honors programs instead of maintaining separate colleges, and their relatively high rankings in many surveys make it almost impossible to register any impact through their honors programs.

But the honors colleges do seem to perform somewhat better if the task is to provide a body of excellence within a larger university that does not start out with the resources of the public elites.