Goldwater Awards for 2012 Announced!

The 2012 Goldwater Scholarships for undergraduates to do research in science, technology, engineering, and math have been announced, and students from all but six of the 50 universities under review have won at least one award, with Georgia, Kansas, Nebraska, and North Carolina State leading the way with four awards each.

Universities among the fifty that have three Goldwater winners are Alabama, Massachusetts at Amherst, Minnesota, Ohio State, Oregon, Pitt, South Carolina, and UT Austin.

Winning two awards are Clemson, Colorado, Florida, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Rutgers, Penn State, Washington, Washington State, and Wisconsin.

Although the awards just announced will not be a part of the statistics for the current edition of A REVIEW OF FIFTY PUBLIC UNIVERSITY HONORS PROGRAMS, they will be included in the next, expanded issue.

Leading Programs, by Size of Honors Enrollment

The average honors enrollment among the fifty universities under review is just under 1,800 students. Honors colleges and programs that invest the time and resources into sustaining excellence for so many students deserve special recognition. Below is a list of larger honors programs with more than 1,800 students. These programs have performed well in one or more of these categories: honors curriculum, honors retention and graduation rates, and prestigious scholarships, such as Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, and Goldwater awards. Please review our Methodology page to achieve a better understanding of the lists below.


1. University of Michigan, LSA Honors Program
2. Arizona State University, Barrett Honors College
3. University of Georgia, Honors Program
4. Penn State University, Schreyer Honors College
5. University of Minnesota, Honors Program

Universities with smaller honors programs (fewer than 1,800 students) can focus on developing and sustaining an extremely high degree of excellence within the much larger university as a whole. Competition for places in these programs may be almost as difficult as earning a place at an elite private institution. Though smaller than the mean size of all programs under review, most of the colleges and programs listed below have enrollments greater than 1,000 honors students.

1. University of Virginia, Echols Scholars Program
2. UT Austin, Plan II Honors Program
3. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Honors Carolina
4. University of Washington, University Honors Program
5. University of South Carolina Honors College

Revised April 4, 2012.

Methodology for Evaluating Honors Programs

First, evaluating university honors programs is far from an exact science. While this is also true of all college “rankings,” it is even truer of honors colleges and programs. Our own project began with modest aims, and it is ending with modest claims. The distinctions among the programs evaluated for the Review are small (see below), especially among the leading programs. Often, these distinctions come down to which program has better housing, or recognized study-abroad options, or priority registration for honors students. Some parents and prospective students may consider some or all of these features as unimportant when compared to rankings of academic departments, prestigious scholarships, or, say, the annual U.S. News rankings.

What we have attempted to do is come at the evaluation process from more than one perspective in order to reflect the subtleties of honors colleges and programs. The two major categories in our evaluation are Overall Excellence and Honors Factors. Additional categories are determined by program admission requirements, mainly SAT/ACT/GPA criteria. We have four of these sub-categories: SAT 1400+, SAT 1300-1400, SAT 1220+, and, to reflect yet another difference among programs, a fourth category including universities with an engineering/agriculture focus.

The criteria for Overall Excellence are as follows:

Honors curriculum as an estimated percentage of the graduation requirement=35%;
Prestigious scholarships, such as Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, and Goldwater=25%;
Honors graduation rates, actual or estimated, 6-yr, freshman entrants only=20%;
A metric for honors residence halls that emphasizes location and room styles=10%;
Study-abroad programs for the university as a whole or for honors only=7.5%;
The availability of priority registration for honors students=2.5%.

In addition, programs or colleges with high enrollments of honors students may receive up to 1.5 “bonus points” for strong performance in curriculum, prestigious scholarships, or honors retention/graduation. The bonus points are in recognition of the economic and organizational challenges inherent in providing honors education to larger groups of students.

Why did we choose the criteria and percentages that we did? First, the classroom is where the most frequent contacts between students and professors take place. An extensive curriculum promotes the most classroom contact. Another reason for the emphasis on curriculum is that the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) gives it such a high priority. Still another reason is that our research finally led us to conclude that a program’s inability to articulate a strong curriculum was often indicative of other issues.

Prestigious scholarships are often touted by honors programs, and we believe that they should be. If honors programs at public universities want to compete with the private elites, then prestigious scholarships are part of the contest. Do we believe that they should have an overwhelming influence? No, but, as the highest honors a student can achieve, they are important. The scholarships that we include are Rhodes (full history); Gates/Cambridge (2001-2011); Marshall (2001-2011); Churchill (1963-2011); Truman (1977-2011); Fulbright (1993-2009), adjusted for size of undergraduate population; Udall (1996-2011); and Goldwater (1989-2011).

Graduation rates are important, especially as a point of comparison with university-wide rates. We believe parents and students should have as many ways as possible to assess honors programs, and one important way is to see how the programs improve on the performance of the university as a whole. As noted elsewhere, we used estimates for some programs, based on actual data for all graduates at each university and actual data for honors graduates only, at many institutions. From these data, we were able to estimate with enough confidence that we went forward with the metric, but we limited the range of possible scores.

Housing comes across as an extremely important factor for students and parents alike. We did not want to give it a dominant place in our review, but we believed that it had to be assessed. There are many ways to look at honors housing; we finally decided to score the housing using location and room configuration as the main, but not only, criteria.

Study-abroad, as discussed elsewhere, is increasingly important. Our metric in that category is a mix of university-wide and honors-specific data, and it is not as strong as we would like. That is why we caution that differences in the scores should not be taken as determinative, at least for programs scoring 3.5 or even 4.5. Having said this, we decided to go with what we had so that, in most cases, readers could get an idea of the study-abroad programs. Programs were assigned scores in .5 increments based on the percentage of honors students participating in study-abroad activities; the percentage of university students participating; the duration and type of study-abroad experience; and the total number of university students in study-abroad programs. Programs that received special mention in U.S. News were also eligible for extra points. This approach has been useful in identifying universities with nationally recognized study-abroad programs, but those universities that do not quite rise to that level of recognition might not receive as much credit in our review as they deserve. Therefore, a low score for a given university in the study-abroad category should not be determinative, but a high score is a robust indicator.

Priority registration is a tough one: honors students love it, but many honors administrators are wary that it confers too much favoritism and creates enmity within the university as a whole. Some administrators also believe that many students may enroll in honors only or primarily because of priority registration. We wanted it to be in the reviews because it is so important to many students. We also agree that it is important, not least because it can help students graduate on time. In this first edition, we decided not to give it enough weight to make it a deal-breaker. In the next edition, we might increase the weight.

As for the percentages assigned to each category, in the end, as is the case of others who do comparisons or rankings, the choice of what to emphasize is part subjective and part a result of the available data. We did not finally determine the weights for the categories until we had completed our work. This is the best way to “let the data speak.” On the subjective side, the cumulative impressions formed over many months of continual research helped to guide us toward the curriculum emphasis. On the data side, our stats about the prestigious scholarships are very accurate, given the awards we were able to analyze. That is but one of the reasons we used that metric for Overall Excellence.

And that’s the short answer to the question we posed above!

The criteria for Honors Factors only are the same as those for Overall Excellence, except that the metric for prestigious scholarships is not included. The reasons: some relatively new programs have only recently begun to emphasize these scholarships, and others find themselves at a disadvantage because they may be surrounded by elite private institutions that receive disproportionate attention when it comes to major awards. The maximum total score for Honors Factors is 75, although programs may earn .5 or 1.0 bonus points for strong performance in curriculum and honors retention/graduation.

It is important to know that the scores separating programs listed in both the Overall Excellence and Honors Factors lists may differ by as little as .01. We maintain such small differences so that we are better able to use multiple comparisons with more accuracy. For example, when we show how the Perception of a university as a whole differs from its Overall Excellence, and how that, in turn, may differ from its Honors Factors, we are dealing with rankings within rankings and need to employ what seem to be minor distinctions.

While we believe these minor distinctions are useful in our approach of employing multiple comparisons, we also want readers who are looking at the two main lists of Overall Excellence and Honors Factors not to get lost in the finer points. A difference of 2 or even 3 whole points is certainly not enough to override other factors of greater importance, such as strength in the major field, financial assistance, location, personal visits, or even national rankings of the universities as a whole. A striking example of our advice to look holistically at these major lists can be seen in the list for Overall Excellence, where the total point difference between the university ranked 7th and the university ranked 13th is a mere 1.12 points.

Another way of understanding this important caveat is to see what the difference between a typical, single numerical ranking, such as that utilized by U.S. News and others, would look like compared to our list. Using the same universities in the example above, our ranking is 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13–or seven distinct places. If we had used a single numerical ranking that rounded scores to whole points, the same schools would rank 7, 8, 8, 8, 8, 8, and 13.

Let us be candid about the data: they are not definitive, but we believe that they are strongly suggestive. We say this up front because many programs chose not to cooperate with our project. One reason is that many honors professionals doubt that their distinctive programs can be compared in a meaningful way; but another reason is that a lot of honors programs do not have the information on hand that they probably should have in order to assess their own value to students. As we–and they–work our way through this first attempt to evaluate honors programs, perhaps the process will yield much better information in the future.

We have devoted most of our time during the six-month research effort to sorting out honors curricula, using as a resource what most parents and students would have to use: program websites, catalogs, annual reports, etc. In some cases, we have clarified program requirements with honors staff. Before final publication, all programs and colleges under review received advance profiles along with an invitation to respond. Many did so, but some did not.

Finally, we also have summaries that show the Overall Excellence rank and the Honors Factors rank for each program, according to the admission requirements of the group (SAT/ACT/GPA).

Honors Curriculum: Flexibility vs. Structure

Common sense suggests that there would be three basic types of honors curricula: structured, flexible, or a combination of the two. And that is the case, based on our review of the curriculum descriptions on the 50 websites of the universities under review. It is evident that any of the three models can work effectively, but parents and prospective students might want to consider the following information before making a final choice of an honors college or program:

1. Our evaluation and the resulting scores are based primarily on the quantity of honors hours required or typically taken by students. There may be a qualitative element in our evaluations when it is clear from other published data or from exchanges with honors directors that certain features that may not be prominent on the website are worthy of emphasis. A prime example of this would be a national recognized undergraduate research program. Yet, generally, curricula with a high percentage of required honors courses do better in our evaluation, and most of these combine flexibility with a reasonably understandable structure. Most of these also allow students the honors perk of priority registration, at least for honors courses, and this makes it easier for honors students to complete the more stringent requirements.

2. Programs with flexible curricula also score well if the total hour requirement or typical attainment level is high, even absent a strongly-defined structure. Programs with flexible curricula also correlate better with other excellence factors (e.g., prestigious scholarships) if the flexibility is coupled with priority registration. And this makes sense, too, because a program that allows honors students to literally write their own tickets must enable those students to pick their preferred courses as freely as possible, especially if the total number of required honors courses is high. Allowing honors students to contract for honors credit while taking non-honors courses may be an effective way to avoid offering priority registration, but it is not clear to us, at least, that the contract option actually produces an equivalent result.

3. The programs that are not assigned high scores in the curriculum category usually have a small honors requirement–say, only 14%-21% of courses counted toward graduation are honors courses, including departmental honors courses.

4. Parents and prospective students should be aware, however, that programs that are part of universities with a strong engineering focus have a significantly lower average of total honors requirements, about 19%, and as low as 14% in some schools. This lower quantity results from the time required of engineering students to meet their major requirements, so if the student is in engineering, a lower honors requirement may be regarded as a positive rather than a negative factor.

5. Final thoughts: priority registration is more important–and more justifiable–when more than 27 total semester hours of honors courses are required for graduation. And in general, especially for non-engineering majors, quantity does matter.

Prestigious Scholarships and Unfair Competition

No, this is not a post about scandals or outrageous behavior on the part of over-zealous or unethical promoters of prestigious scholarships, who sometimes surface in the intense competition to bring home major awards to campuses.

The unfair competition we detect has nothing to do with shady tactics; it is, rather, the heavy burden that public universities in the Northeast are forced to accept because of the overwhelming impact of the Ivies and elite liberal arts schools in the region. The presence of these academic powerhouses in the region led us to make a late change in the way we presented our data.

(Other parts of the country are similarly affected by the presence of elite private institutions or by the fact that some awards are given based on the state of residence of  the student rather than on the state in which their university is located.  A student with a residence in California who wins a Goldwater Scholarship while attending Harvard is listed as a California awardee.)

For example, the total number of Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships won by all 50 of the public universities we are reviewing over since the inception of both awards is 864. Now, this may seem like a high number, but consider this: the eight Ivy League universities plus MIT–a total of nine schools versus our 50–have garnered 1,609 Rhodes and Marshall awards. Throw in Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, and Wellesley, and the total rises to 1,845. Throw in West Point, and that’s another 120 awards, making the grand total 1,965 won by only 14 schools.

And they’re all within about 250 miles of nine of the schools among the 50 we are reviewing. The Universities of Binghamton, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Penn State, Rutgers, Stony Brook, SUNY Buffalo, and Vermont are the publics that have the greatest challenge when it comes to doing well in regional competitions for awards or when the Goldwater and Truman people look to some degree of state equity in making their decisions.

Although some programs may have, so to speak, said to hell with it, and decided it is a waste of resources to challenge the likes of Harvard, with 563 Rhodes and Marshall awards all by itself, others that may be trying as hard as they can still have a much tougher time than other public schools that do not have to deal with the Ivies, West Point, and the elite liberal arts institutions.

Delaware, Vermont, and Rutgers have done the best of all the public universities who operate near the famous private schools in winning the major postgraduate scholarships, while Penn State has the best overall record of awards, including Goldwater and Udall scholarships. One reason for this relative success is that the most intense pressure from the private elites hits Massachusetts and Connecticut the hardest.

So here is what we plan to do: We will now have an additional listing of the 50 programs, one that will show total scores without the prestigious awards points. This addition will also answer some critics who have, correctly, stressed that prestigious awards may or may not be earned by students in honors programs.

Now parents, prospective students, and honors staff will be able to have it both ways–with prestigious scholarships as part of the total, and without them, leaving only the honors-specific data as an indication of a program’s success.