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.

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