At last, there is a major study that goes a long way toward answering this important question.
Making good use of the increasing data now available on honors programs and their parent institutions, two honors researchers have recently published a major paper that compares honors students and non-honors students from 19 public research universities. Out of 119,000 total students, a total of 15,200 were or had been participants in an honors program.
The study is extremely helpful to parents and prospective honors students who rightly ask how an honors education differs from a non-honors education: How will participation in an honors program shape and differentiate an honors student? Will an honors education be the equivalent of an education at a more prestigious private college?
The authors of the study are Dr. Andrew Cognard-Black of St. Mary’s College of Maryland and Dr. Art Spisak, Director of the University of Iowa Honors Program and former president of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC).The title of their paper, published in the Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, is Honors and Non-Honors Students in Public Research Universities in the United States.”
Here are the major findings:
Feelings about the undergraduate experience: “In their undergraduate experience, students in the honors group reported a more positive experience, on average, than those in the non-honors group.” Both groups attended classes with similar frequency, but honors students reported greater activity in the following areas:
- finding coursework so interesting that they do more work than is required;
- communicating with profs outside of class;
- working with faculty in activities other than coursework;
- increasing effort in response to higher standards;
- completing assigned reading;
- attending to self care, eating, and sleeping;
- spending more time studying;
- performing more community service and volunteer work;
- participating in student organizations;
- and, while spending about the same time in employment, finding on-campus employment more frequently than non-honors students.
Participation in “high-impact” activities: These experiences contribute to undergraduate success and satisfaction as well as to higher achievement after graduation. Some of these are restricted to upperclassmen, so the study concentrated on participation by seniors in high-impact activities, including undergraduate research, senior capstone or thesis, collaborating with a professor on a project or paper, studying abroad, or serving in a position of leadership.
“Those [students] in the honors student segment of the senior sample had markedly higher cumulative college grade point averages.” The cumulative GPA of the honors group was 3.65; for the non-honors group it was 3.31. “A grade point average of 3.31 is located at the 38th percentile in the overall distribution within the study sample, and a grade point average of 3.65 is at the 69th percentile.” The authors found that the very significant difference was “particularly impressive” given that the high school GPAs of honors and non-honors students did not vary so significantly. Honors students were also 14% more likely to have served as an officer in a campus organization.
Students in the honors group were 77% more likely to have assisted faculty in research projects, 85% percent more likely to have studied abroad, and 2.5 times more likely to have conducted undergraduate research under faculty guidance.
Intellectual curiosity: Honors students expressed a statistically significant but not dramatically greater degree of intellectual curiosity; however, their intellectual curiosity was aligned with the “prestige” of an academic major. The study did not measure whether this attachment to prestige reflected a desire for greater intellectual challenge or for higher salaries associated with many such majors. (Or both.) Both groups placed similar emphasis on the importance of high pay after graduation and on career fulfillment.
Diversity: The study found that African American students were only 52% as likely to be in an honors program as they are to be in the larger university sample. Latin American students were 58% as likely. These figures may be due in part to the fact that, as a group, the 19 research universities “are located in states that are somewhat more white than the nation as a whole, but most of the discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that Research 1 universities do not, in general, have enrollments that are especially representative of ethnic and racial minorities.” On the other hand, LGBQ, transgender, and gender-questioning students “appear to be slightly over-represented among honors students.”
Low-income and first generation participation: These students “are significantly and substantially under-represented in the honors group.” Pell Grant recipients are 30% less likely to be in honors than in the non-honors group; and 40% of first-generation students are less likely to be in the honors group.
Test scores and HSGPA: There was a difference between honors and non-honors students, but it was not dramatic. “Regardless of which test score was used, the honors group had scores that were about 10% higher, on average.” (In our ratings of honors programs, we have found that honors test scores were about 17% higher, based on actual honors scores and the mid-range of test scores in U.S. News rankings.) The average high school GPA for the honors group was .11 points higher than for the non-honors group.
The study used data from the 2018 Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey for 2018. Although the study only used data from Research 1 universities that comprise only 3% of all colleges and universities in the nation, R1 universities enroll 28.5% of all undergraduates pursuing four-year degrees.
Research centered on honors education is increasingly important: An estimated 300,000-400,000 honors students are enrolled in American colleges and universities today.