College Value: Public Honors vs. Private Elites

Editor’s Note: This post was updated on September 24, 2018.

It is difficult to compare public honors colleges and programs, on the one hand, with elite private institutions on the other. Data for honors colleges and programs is a difficult to obtain sub-set of university-wide data. We do have a large amount of honors-specific data based on our 2018 survey and analysis of more than 40 leading programs, but the degree of overlap with that data and the data for the private elites is limited.

The information below may help exceptional high school students to decide what their alternatives might be if the elite private school of their choice either rejects them or, in providing only need-based aid, still leaves middle-income families with some big bills to pay.  Many public honors programs have non-need-based aid for exceptional students, and the stats below show that, regarding selectivity, honors programs can provide top students with a strong cohort of equally bright peers, often as bright as the students attending top private schools.

What we have is this: the mean two-part SAT scores for the 15 selective private elite universities, along with the six-year grad rates for those same schools; and the same data for the 14 public honors colleges and programs whose entrants had the highest university grad rates. Note: The honors graduation rate includes students who did not complete honors program requirements but did graduate from the parent university in six years.

The mean SAT scores range from a high of 1540 to a low of 1437, adjusted to the new SAT.

What does this illustrate?  For one thing, most people do not realize how selective many public honors programs are, and for another, it is interesting to see if the high selectivity of all these schools and programs results in similar graduation rates. If we had four-year grad rates for all the honors programs, we could also compare those.

We do not have that data for all programs, but the average dropoff from the six-year rate to the four-year rate among private elites is 8-10 percentage points. The limited data we have from public honors programs indicates about the same dropoff for honors grad rates, although the four-year rates of top public universities as whole are about 20-25 below the six-year honors rate.

Below are the 29 schools listed in the order of their mean SAT scores, regardless of private or public status. The next figure shows the six-year grad rate.  Please understand that this listing varies somewhat from our ratings of honors colleges and honors programs. This list is based on selectivity alone, which plays no part in our ratings.

UniversityAvg Test ScoresEst ACT equiv6-yr Grad %  
Virginia Echols*15203495
Notre Dame14903496
South Carolina14813391
UT Austin14803391
Penn State14503391
North Carolina**14403394

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