College Value: Public Honors vs. Private Elites

Editor’s Note: This post was updated on March 21, 2020.

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 the quality of academic departments, public universities and their honors programs can provide top students with an education equivalent to that available at elite private institutions. The key is the combination of honors and strong academic departments. Honors students typically have far more opportunities to interact with top faculty than do students who are not in honors.

Below we list universities, public and private, according to their overall departmental rankings across 15 disciplines: biology, undergrad business, chemistry, computer science, earth sciences, economics, education, undergrad engineering, English, history, math, physics, political science, psychology, and sociology.

We also show the universities with honors programs and honors colleges. The most elite private universities do not have separate honors programs, other than those within specific academic departments (“departmental honors”). Many universities have honors programs affiliated with A&S, or Arts and Sciences; some use different designations, such as “L&S Honors” or “LSA” Honors.” Sometimes, these focus on the humanities and sciences, with few or no offerings in business or engineering. There are some exceptions of course, especially regarding business courses. Their popularity means that many of not most honors programs offering some honors business honors sections. Honors colleges almost always offer some honors business courses and even honors sections in engineering and computer science.

UniversityAvg Dept RankSeparate Honors Curric   
Stanford1.86No
UC Berkeley2.13No
MIT2.73No
Caltech4.71No
Princeton5.46No
Harvard5.64No
Michigan9LSA Honors Program
Columbia10No
UCLA10.86Honors Arts/Sciences
Yale10.92No
Chicago11.67No
Wisconsin13.13L&S Honors
Cornell13.93No
UT-Austin14.8Plan II, LA Honors, others
Penn16.27No
Northwestern17.64No
Duke20.23No
Illinois20.6Chancellor's, James
Johns Hopkins21.86Humanities Honors
Washington22.2University Honors Programc
Minnesota24.33University Honors Program
NYU25.6Presidential Scholars
North Carolina25.93Honors Carolina
UCSD26.33Sixth College
Carnegie Mellon26.45Seniors only-Dietrich
Ohio State26.6Honors and Scholars
Virginia27.47Echols, Jefferson
Penn State27.53Schreyer Honors
Brown27.54No
UC Davis28.21University Honors Program
Maryland28.47UM Honors College
Indiana30.14Hutton Honors College
Wash U30.36No
Rice31.92Juniors and Seniors
UC Irvine32.67CHP Honors
Colorado33.2A&S Honors
Georgia Tech33.7First two years
Vanderbilt35.36College Scholars Program
USC35.67Dornsife Honors
UCSB36.79L&S Honors Program
Purdue40.2Purdue Honors College
Texas A&M40.87University Honors Program
Michigan State42.13MSU Honors College
Rutgers New Bruns43.07Rutgers Honors College
Notre Dame45.43Glynn Honors
Arizona45.47Arizona Honors College
Emory45.82No
Arizona State45.93Barrett Honors College
Pitt46.07Pitt Honors College
Stony Brook SUNY46.15Stony Brook Honors College
Florida 48.4University Honors Program
Boston Univ49.13Kilachand Honors
Massachusetts49.79Commonwealth Hons
Boston College49.91A&S Honors Program

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