PSAT National Merit Scholar Qualifying Scores, Class of 2021 (Lower than 2020)

This post applies to students who took the test in October 2019 (NMS Class of 2021).

The big news is that every state saw a drop in the qualifying score for the NMS Class of 2021, including five with a 4-point decline and one, South Dakota, with a 5-point decline.

“What is somewhat surprising is how sharp the difference is between the highest scoring states and everyone else,” writes Art Sawyer at Compassprep. “Of the 10 states at a cutoff of 221 or higher for the class of 2020, 8 saw only a 1-point decline. Illinois and Texas were the exceptions, with 2-point declines. The average decline among the other 40 states was 2.7 points.”

The selection index score is the sum of your three PSAT scores, maximum of 228. The first score listed is for 2021; the second was the score required for the class of 2020; and the third is the score for the class of 2019.

Alabama 212, 216, 216
Alaska 212, 213, 215
Arizona 218, 219, 220
Arkansas 212, 214, 214
California 221, 222, 223
Colorado 217, 220, 221
Connecticut 220, 221, 222
Delaware 219, 220, 222
Dist Columbia 222, 223, 223
Florida 216, 219, 219
Georgia 219, 220, 220
Hawaii 217, 219, 220
Idaho 214, 215, 214
Illinois 219, 221, 221
Indiana 215, 218, 219
Iowa 212, 215, 216
Kansas 218, 218, 219
Kentucky 214, 217, 218
Louisiana 212, 215, 217
Maine 213, 215, 217
Maryland 221, 222, 223
Massachusetts 222, 223, 223
Michigan 216, 219, 219
Minnesota 218, 219, 220
Mississippi 211, 214, 215
Missouri 214, 217, 217
Montana 210, 214, 214
Nebraska 213, 216, 216
Nevada 215, 218, 218
New Hampshire 215, 218, 219
New Jersey 222, 223, 223
New Mexico 211, 213, 215
New York 220, 221, 221
North Carolina 217, 219, 220
North Dakota 209, 212, 212
Ohio 215, 218, 219
Oklahoma 211, 214, 216
Oregon 217, 220, 221
Pennsylvania 217, 220, 220
Rhode Island 216, 218, 220
South Carolina 212, 215, 216
South Dakota 209, 214, 215
Tennessee 215, 219, 219
Texas 219, 221, 221
Utah 212, 215, 215
Vermont 212, 216, 216
Virginia 221, 222, 222
Washington 220, 221, 222
West Virginia 209, 212, 212
Wisconsin 213, 216, 216
Wyoming 209, 212, 212
Commended 209, 212, 211
Territories 209, 212, 211
International 222, 223, 223

To qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, the PSAT must be taken in the student’s junior year of high school. Many parents may not be aware that there is no single nationwide score on the PSAT that will qualify a student to become a NMS semifinalist, a critical preliminary step on the way to becoming a finalist and then perhaps a merit scholar.

Students are classified according to the state in which they attend high school, not the state of actual residence.

For more information about confirmation scores, please see PSAT Scoring and NMS (for a detailed explanation of scoring); The National Merit Journey: What You Need to Know, Part One; and The National Merit Journey Part Two: The Parent’s Role.

Semifinalists emerge from the top 3-4% of students (50,000 or so) taking the test, by virtue of the PSAT score alone. The top 3-4% of students earn “commended” status, and there is a national uniform score for commended students=209 for 2021. (See below for SAT equivalent.) Semifinalists, on the other hand, account for fewer than 1% of all students, or about 16,000 nationwide.

From these students, the merit scholar foundation, using state allocation levels, selects about 15,000 to become finalists; and from this group, about 9,000 are actually selected as merit scholars, based on both PSAT and SAT scores and a letter of recommendation from the high school principal. Therefore, many students who meet the semifinalist thresholds listed below do not go on to become finalists or merit scholars (two different things, though for some schools being a finalist is sufficient to earn support). We speculate that meaningful improvement on the SAT, taken in the spring of the junior year, relative to the PSAT score from the preceding October, may help in identifying students who go beyond finalist status and become merit scholars.

Each state has its own threshold PSAT score, which is the baseline for students to be considered as semifinalists in a given state. The scores vary widely for the NMS class of 2021, from 209 in West Virginia to 222 in the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.

Honors Completion Rates: Leading Honors Colleges and Programs

In previous posts, one extremely lengthy and detailed and the other explaining our formula for setting target completion rates, we have tried to explain the differences between university grad rates, honors program grad rates, and honors program completion rates.

The first two are straightforward: The university rate will always be lower than the honors program rate because of the greater selectivity and mentoring associated with honors programs. The university grad rate for honors students averages 86-88 percent, and is sometimes as high as 97 percent.

An honors completion rate goes a step beyond the honors graduation rate. The grad rate is for honors entrants, whether or not they completed all honors requirements by the time of graduation. The completion rate is the percentage of honors program entrants who not only graduated from the university but also completed all honors program requirements for at least one option. Some programs have multiple options, with the requirements for first-year entrants averaging about 30 honors credits and a threshold for transfer students of 15-18 hours or so.

In our study for 2020, we have obtained honors graduation and completion rates from 31 honors colleges and programs. Below, in Table 1, we list the programs with the highest completion rates, all above the mean of 57.2 percent. In this table we also list the honors graduation rate, the highest credit-hour completion requirement for each program, and the average 2020 SAT scores for first-year entrants.

The top six programs all had honors completion rates of 70 percent or higher. This is a remarkably high number when one considers that many of these programs require an honors thesis. Many elite private colleges no longer require a thesis for graduation or for honors recognition. The top six programs, in terms of raw ordinal completion rates, are CUNY Macaulay Honors College; UIUC’s CHP Honors Program; the UT Austin Plan II Honors Program; Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College; the South Carolina Honors College; and Arizona State’s Barrett Honors College.

[table id=119 /]

 

In Table 2, below, we show adjusted honors completion rates for programs after the impact of university graduation and freshman retention rates are taken into account. In contrast to Table 1, the table shows the extent to which programs have exceeded expectations in light of these two factors.

We find that seven programs achieved an adjusted completion rate that exceeded the target rate by 10 or more percentage points: CUNY Macaulay Honors College; the UAB Honors College; the Kansas University Honors Program; the College of Charleston Honors College; the South Carolina Honors College; Arizona State’s Barrett Honors College; and the Washington State Honors College.

[table id=124 /]

 

Maintaining the “Honors Difference” During the Pandemic: Virginia Tech Honors College

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on how public university honors colleges and programs across the nation are maintaining “the honors difference” during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Our thanks to Virginia Tech Honors College for contributing this article. Contact Michelle Fleury (mfleury@vt.edu) for more information.

To help prevent the spread of COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus), Virginia Tech transitioned to distance learning for the remainder of the Spring semester after March 23, 2020. The Virginia Tech Honors College, through innovative initiatives like the SuperStudio, has continued to facilitate an extraordinary education for Honors students even during these challenging times.

In Spring 2020, the Virginia Tech Honors College, in collaboration with the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) and University Studies, was able to launch SuperStudio. For the next few semesters, topics courses in environmental policy, healthcare, emerging technologies, the future of higher education, and the future of employment will all meet together to examine the possibilities and implications of a Green New Deal, an emerging framework for understanding and addressing interconnected crises in climate change and economic equality.

VaTech SuperStudio laid the groundwork for honors collaboration after COVID-19

Faculty and students rotate among the topics courses, which meet simultaneously in the same studio space, and all come together once a week to consider issues and processes that apply to all transdisciplinary work, such as ethics, equity, policy, problem framing, and innovation.

 

The learning environment of SuperStudio is designed to be highly energized, engaging, and collaborative. “I like being in a space where there’s a lot going on, but we’re not necessarily doing the same thing,” explained Honors student Nina Tarr. “SuperStudio feels like a community.” Nina says her favorite aspect of SuperStudio is the crossing over of sections, such as policy overlapping with higher education.  “I also like the theme of the Green New Deal and how we can tie that together with all the different sections,” said Nina.

Collaboration is key, now possible by merging SuperStudio practices and utilizing Zoom

By allowing different sections to work together and meet across topics for common activities, SuperStudio provides plenty of opportunities for students to develop critical skills and knowledge. “I really enjoyed the experience of being in a big room with all the sections and being able to meet each day of the week in different sections,” said Thomas Miller in the Future of Higher Education section. “We would team up with other sections and kind of combine the ideas that allowed for everyone to experiment with what they were thinking about. So, you would be pushed to think about your own ideas about your topic in different ways. It’s a way to meld ideas together to have a cool discussion.”

The collaborative structure developed in SuperStudio has made the transition to online interactions easier because connections between students and faculty across sections were already established at the beginning of the semester. Students were able to know each other well in their smaller sections, but also had many opportunities to regularly interact with faculty and students across sections. “It’s definitely easier to collaborate in SuperStudio because it was already highly collaborative and we all know each other very well,” said Nina. “So, it’s more comfortable to collaborate and it’s easier to connect.”

Honors College SuperStudio is continuing its highly collaborative format online on Zoom, a popular software platform that provides videotelephony and online chat services often used in distance education. Zoom meetings are hosted online with professors from each section and smaller groups continue to break off in individual Zoom meetings to work together on activities or projects that are extensions of those original discussions. It’s this combination of SuperStudio’s unique design and the pre-established connection that allows SuperStudio to still thrive in distance learning.

“I would say SuperStudio is more collaborative [compared] to [my] other courses. A lot of people are still working together in group projects and creating their own learning together,” Thomas said. “For a lot of my other courses, I wouldn’t call it ‘collaboration.’ I’d call it more of a discussion board… It’s not a real conversation or real collaboration. It doesn’t make you feel like you’re in a classroom [like you feel when in SuperStudio].”

The impact of Honors courses traditionally rests on their small class sizes. “The SuperStudio adds the advantages of experiential, collaborative learning.” said Paul Knox, Dean of the Virginia Tech Honors College, adding that “With our model, we have been able to maintain these advantages through synchronous online learning.”

Meetings with students often focused not only on class topics and projects, but on understanding current events and working through the relationship of class materials to evolving news stories. In this way, students engaged with materials more deeply and maintained more in-depth connections with faculty than if video interactions were limited solely to class-specific materials. Students have maintained connections with fellow students and faculty across topics sections by meeting with different SuperStudio faculty and different groups of students to propose ideas for and develop drafts of final projects. To continue maintaining strong relationships with students and to help students navigate their education during this time, faculty members also expanded their virtual office hours. “The connection is still there,” said Miller. “You have to rely on yourself more, but the bigger issues are still very answerable. E-mail and Zoom correspondence work pretty well.”

SuperStudio has also sustained its visiting speaker series online. Since the transition to distance learning, for example, SuperStudio had the pleasure of speaking with British Economics and Politics Commentator Grace Blakeley, author of “Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialization.” Despite the transition to an online format, the talk was even more interactive. Students were able to ask Blakeley questions ranging from how to “hack” financialization to advice on where to study heterodox economics. Having the audience as well as the speaker on Zoom actually allowed for even closer interaction than if the audience was in person. Blakeley, as the speaker, could see students more individually from the crowd while they asked questions, and therefore, was able to follow-up more personally. Students also appeared to feel more comfortable to engage in this video-conferencing format with the visiting speaker. The success of this format makes it an attractive option for engaging future speakers with the student audience in Honors.

Some New Honors College “Rankings” Have Appeared Elsewhere; Here’s Our Take

By John Willingham, Editor

Recently, Google searches are listing two new sites that claim to rank public university honors programs and honors colleges. Their “rankings” in most instances bear a close resemblance to the ratings we have produced since 2012. Aside from the likelihood of  extensive (unattributed) borrowing from our copyrighted work, the fact is that most of the data necessary to rank or rate these programs is not publicly available. We are the only site or organization in the country that does have access, gained only after many years of dialogue and collaboration with honors deans and directors across the nation. One wonders how these new rankings were developed. Or were they mostly “borrowed”?

Our collaborative process yields enormous amounts of data. For example, to calculate honors class sizes, we have to analyze about 10,000 honors classes for each addition. Much of the data required for this analysis is not available on honors sites or even on university-wide course schedules.

And still we do not “rank” programs. Typically, I have an opinion, based on data, about the best five to ten programs in the nation among those rated in a given edition. The data may show that one is “better” (a higher point total) than all the rest. And then I think about how I have weighted each of the 13 rating categories. If I were to change any of them, the ratings would change. All is driven by the methodology, and nobody’s methodology is perfect. It is a matter of judgment in the final analysis. It is not scientific in the truest sense, even with all the data involved. I can give you an exact figure for honors class sizes at Honors College A, but the rating proportion I assign to that exact figure is subjective.

If it’s not science, don’t present it as science. Ordinal rankings present themselves as science. But just imagine how the U.S. News rankings would change if all the institutional wealth metrics were removed or if selectivity did not count.

Thanks to the cooperation of honors deans and directors across the nation, we now receive for each rated profile 10-20 pages of documents, much of it hard data on class sections and course offerings. No one else obtains this level of unique data. Even by going online and reading every entry in the university’s course schedule one will not find the volume and specificity of data that we need for honors course analyses. That’s because honors programs offer mixed and contract sections that are not transparent in online course listings.

This brings us to the new rankings.

One lists “The 9 Best Honors Colleges and Programs” in the nation. Here is the methodology:

“To put together our list, we evaluated the national honors college rankings from the past two years. We also evaluated honors colleges based on admissions requirements, curricular and extracurricular program offerings, emphasis on fostering an honors student community, financial aid opportunities, and unique or innovative approaches to the honors educational experience.” [Emphasis added.]

First, how does someone quantify “an emphasis on fostering an honors student community” or “innovative approaches to the honors educational experience”?

Second, I do not know of any “national honors college rankings,” although we announce the top 5-10 programs, in one alphabetical group, every other year. These programs are “top” only within the data set of rated programs for a given edition. No program is declared number one, or number three, or number ten for that data set, much less for the entire universe of honors programs. They are a instead placed in a group. Our refusal to anoint any program with a specific ranking number has, in fact, caused one prominent program to stop cooperating with us.

The “9 Best” site does not hesitate to do so: “Ranked #1 among honors colleges in the United States, Barrett College has a presence on ASU’s four campuses in Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe, and Glendale, Arizona.” Although Barrett, under its longstanding Dean, Mark Jacobs, achieves excellent results year in and year out, I do not know of any recent ranking that specifically lists Barrett or any other honors program or college as number 1. It is true that Barrett has been in the highest (five mortarboard) group in all of our editions. But so has the South Carolina Honors College, Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College, the Plan II Honors Program at UT Austin, the University Honors Program at Kansas, and, since 2016, the Macaulay Honors College at CUNY. These are very different programs, ranging from extremely large (Barrett) to very small (UT Plan II.)

Other strong programs are at Clemson, Delaware, Georgia, Houston, and Ole Miss. Data from Maryland, Michigan, and North Carolina is no longer available, but in one or more previous editions, all received excellent ratings.

The “9 Best” site above also lists Penn State Schreyer, Clemson, and Rutgers Honors College among the best honors colleges, and adds UT Plan II, Kansas UHP, and the Echols Scholar program at UVA. Then in a “best bang for the buck” category, it lists CUNY Macaulay and the Alabama Honors College. (We have not included Echols after the 2014 edition because the new methodology in place since 2016 requires much more class data. Echols students can take almost any class at UVA, and it’s not possible to determine which ones those are at any given time.)

Another site lists the top 50 honors programs and colleges–a list which bears an uncanny resemblance to programs we have rated over the years. The list includes several programs that were not prominently mentioned until they appeared in one of our books: New Jersey Institute of Technology, Temple, Colorado State, and CUNY Macaulay, among them.

Here is the methodology behind this list:

“Below, we have compiled a list of the nation’s top honors colleges/programs. The selection was based on the following indicators of program quality.

  • The selectivity of the college/university (overall)
  • The selectivity of the honors program
  • Average honors class size
  • Number of honors classes
  • Availability of honors housing
  • Whether priority registration is offered to honors students

“Schools marked with an asterisk (*) rated especially high on several indicators and were ranked among the top 20 honors programs according to our methodology.”

All of the above information is in our publications. Further, “availability” of honors housing can be calculated only if one knows both the number of honors “beds” and the number of eligible honors students. One can know the true number of honors classes only if there is access to full spreadsheets, not just online listings, especially those limited to the honors homepage. And the true average class size likewise relies on extremely detailed data not available from online sources. Finally, some of the test scores listed on the site are incorrect and misleading.

Yes, I realize that U.S. News has several competitors in ranking colleges and universities. And, often, many of these rankings roughly correspond, especially at the most elite brand level. But…these competing ranking organizations all gather their own data, even while applying different methodologies, refrain from unseemly borrowing.

Here Are 75 Public Universities Listed in Order of Academic Department Rankings

For several years, we have kept track of U.S. News rankings of academic departments so that we can give readers some idea of which universities are strongest in 15 academic disciplines: biology, business, chemistry, computer science, earth sciences, economics, education, engineering, English, history, math, physics, political science, psychology, and sociology.

Sather Gate, UC Berkeley

We use this data for a variety of posts, including some that compare public and private university departmental rankings. In other posts we have shown the relation of departmental rankings to other factors, such as U.S. News rankings and lists based on academic reputation. In yet other posts we have listed the disciplines and then grouped universities under each discipline.

But in this post we simply list 75 public universities in order of the aggregate average of 15 academic departments. One caveat: not all of the 75 universities had a ranked department for each of the 15 disciplines. Nevertheless, for those who prioritize high quality in a university across the board, the list could be useful. Students often change majors, and it is reassuring to know that the new major may likely be as strong as the original choice.

UC Berkeley is far and away the leader with an average department ranking of 2.13 nationwide. This is all the more remarkable because many universities do not have even a single department ranked in the top 75.

[table id=115 /]

 

 

 

Here Are Honors Programs to Be Featured in 2020 Edition of Inside Honors

The 2020 edition of Inside Honors was to have included in-depth ratings of 33 programs and somewhat shorter reviews of an additional seven programs. The COVID-19 issues facing universities will delay the next edition until October 2020 and has reduced the original number of programs that committed to participate. Most of the top-rated programs in previous editions will likewise be rated in 2020.

One positive: The new edition will include a new narrative section that summarizes each program and each profile will be longer, averaging 3,500 words.

The 33 programs that will now receive full ratings are below:

Appalachian State
Arizona
Arizona State
Auburn
Central Florida (UCF)
Clemson
College of Charleston
CUNY Macaulay
Delaware
Florida Atlantic
Georgia
Georgia State
Houston
Illinois
Kansas
Kentucky
Mississippi
Nebraska
Nevada Reno
UNC Wilmington
Oklahoma
Oklahoma State
Penn State
South Carolina
South Florida (USF)
UT Chattanooga
Texas Tech
UAB
UT Austin
Vermont
Virginia Commonwealth
Washington State
West Virginia

Below are the seven programs that will receive unrated reviews:

Idaho
Iowa
North Carolina Charlotte
Pitt
South Dakota St
Virginia Tech
Washington

 

Research Programs and the Path to Fellowships: Univ of Houston Honors College

When parents and prospective students think of the advantages of an honors college or program, they often cite smaller classes, talented instructors, priority registration, orbetter housing as being the most important.

But it is extremely important that they do not overlook another advantage that can have the greatest long-term impact on the student’s satisfaction and success: the structured undergraduate research programs that are increasingly affiliated with honors.

The University of Houston Honors College has taken steps to ensure that students not only know about research opportunities but also receive early training in how to conduct research and continued advising for leveraging their research into prestigious fellowships.

The program, called HERE (Houston Early Research Experience), is designed specifically to identify and prepare highly talented students, honors and non-honors, for the process of applying for generous fellowship opportunities. The research along the way promotes more contact between students and professors, more learning in depth, and a greater chance to obtain financial support both for upper-division undergraduate work and for graduate school.

“The HERE program at the University of Houston is an high-impact educational practice that enables fellowship advisors to identify and prepare potential applicants early in their academic careers,” according to Dr. Ben Rayder, Director of Scholarships and Major Awards for the Honors College. “Even though the program is still relatively new, we have already begun to see pipeline effects for student participation in applying for major awards and other experiential learning programs that effectively prepare fellowships candidates.”

The HERE program accomplishes the following:

•Recruits rising sophomore and junior honors students to pursue faculty-mentored research and apply for major awards upon completion of the program
•Integrates theoretical and applied knowledge early in the students’ academic year
•Raises big picture questions that students must collaborate with one another to answer
•Develops foundational research skills
•Builds relationships between students and faculty members

Although the HERE program is designed as an introduction to research and fellowship applications, participation requires a significant commitment. Students meet for five hours a day for a two-week period, during which they submit assignments via Blackboard, work on group assignments, and make final presentations to the group.

Ultimately the honors students receive advising and pursue opportunities in faculty-mentored research, study-abroad activities, service learning projects; most also follow up with preparation and advising related to prestigious fellowships, such as Goldwater Scholarships for undergraduates or Critical Learning and Fulbright Scholarships for seniors.

“The Houston Early Research Experience,” says Honors College Dean, William Monroe, “is proving to be a critical entry point drawing UH students into the substantial range of opportunities available to them for undergraduate research and other high impact experiential learning opportunities.”

Dr. Rayder did a presentation on the HERE program at the recent conference of the National Collegiate Honors Council in New Orleans.

 

International Rankings Engineering and Tech: Top 70 US Universities

Although rankings of international universities are not especially important for some academic disciplines, rankings of engineering and technology are of significant interest because so many U.S. companies who employ graduates in these fields have extensive international contacts, including multiple office facilities abroad.

Whether you are working for an American engineering or tech company at home or abroad, you will have colleagues from across the globe. At least one measure of your credibility with them could be based on the worldwide prominence of your alma mater.

Below are the top U.S. universities in engineering and technology, according to the Times Higher Ed rankings. The schools are listed in numerical order according to their U.S. ranking with their international ranking alongside. After the top 100 in the world, the rankings begin to group in increments of 25 or 50. World rankings up to 250 are included.

[table id=114 /]

 

U.S. News 2020: Dept Rank vs Academic Rep vs Overall Rank Plus Social Mobility

The post is by editor John Willingham.

Yes, the title of this post is a mouthful. For years now, I have kept an updated list of the departmental rankings that U.S. News publishes so that I can add them to the biannual profiles I do of honors programs. When the 2020 rankings came out, I wanted to see whether there was any clear relationship between the departmental scores and the academic reputation scores. Then I compared the latest reputation scores with those published in 2015 to see how much had changed. Finally, the table below also includes changes in university rankings and the most recent rankings for social mobility.

(I would welcome comments on this post. Please email editor@publicuniversityhonors.com.)

It appears that the social mobility metric has had some impact, especially if the ranking is very strong, as in the case of many UC campuses and Florida institutions. There is no clear relationship between departmental scores and academic reputation scores. Departmental rankings do have a modest relationship to the overall U.S. News rankings, but there are many inconsistencies. Academic reputation scores do seem to show some “grade inflation” since 2015; often this is the case even when the U.S News ranking has dropped significantly.

The table below includes data for 100 public and private universities.

The cumulative rankings that I do for 15 academic disciplines requires some explanation. U.S. News only ranks graduate programs for most departments. Here are the disciplines for which I have cumulative departmental rankings, using the most recent data (2018): biological sciences; business (undergrad); chemistry, computer science; earth sciences; economics; education; engineering (undergrad);English; history; mathematics; physics; political science; psychology; and sociology.

Not every university has a ranked department in each of the 15 disciplines. I averaged departmental rankings for every university that had at least six ranked departments. For universities with, say, fewer than 12 ranked departments, the total ranking will be artificially high because only the best departments are ranked and I cannot include unranked departents. Most universities have 12-15 departments that are ranked, and so the overall average will be more useful for them. And some of the universities with a small number of ranked departments are specialized, such as Georgia Tech and Caltech. Clearly, even ranking only six or seven departments for those schools and getting a strong result is not misleading.

Universities with fewer than 10 departmental rankings: Colorado School of Mines; Georgia Tech; Miami Ohio; American; Brigham Young; Caltech; Dartmouth; Drexel; Fordham; Georgetown; and RPI.

It should be said that universities with relatively low departmental rankings can legitimately receive high rankings because of other meaningful factors, such as grad and retention rates and class size. Some excellent universities do not have an especially strong research focus or a lot of graduate programs. Dartmouth is one prominent example.

The universities below appear in rank order of their 2020 academic reputation, according to U.S. News.

[table id=107 /]

 

 

What Are the Differences Between an Honors and a Non-Honors Undergraduate Education?

At last, there is a major study that goes a long way toward answering this important question.

Dr. Art Spisak

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.”

Dr. Andrew Cognard-Black

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:

  1. finding coursework so interesting that they do more work than is required;
  2. communicating with profs outside of class;
  3. working with faculty in activities other than coursework;
  4. increasing effort in response to higher standards;
  5. completing assigned reading;
  6. attending to self care, eating, and sleeping;
  7. spending more time studying;
  8. performing more community service and volunteer work;
  9. participating in student organizations;
  10. 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.