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.

U.S. News Publication: Honors Programs Are Good for “Families Too Rich for Financial Aid”

Public university honors colleges and programs continue to raise their profiles as “value” choices  in higher education, as evidenced by columns in the New York Timesattention from college consultants, and a separate focus piece in the 2015 U.S. News Best Colleges publication.

Now comes another U.S. News publication, the Path to College Guidebook, available for $.99 to Compass subscribers. Compass subscriptions are currently $29.95. (Note: we have no affiliation with U.S. News.)

One section by Farran Powell, titled “Strategies for Students Too Rich for Financial Aid, Too Poor for College,” is especially interesting. Powell describes the experience of a mother in Illinois whose daughter was accepted by Boston College, where the yearly price tag was extremely high.

“Our daughter got into Boston College at $68,000 a year,” says the mom, citing the total cost of attending without any need-based aid and paying in cash.

But she and her daughter chose UConn’s honors program because they gave her daughter a $15,000 a year scholarship, leaving about $30,000 a year in total yearly costs, much less than regular out-of-state expenses would have been.

“(The University of Connecticut charged out-of-state students $34,908 in tuition and fees along with $12,174 for room and board for the 2015-2016 school year – which is much lower compared with Boston College, which billed students $49,324 for tuition and fees and $13,496 for room and board for that same year, according to U.S. News data.”

“Households similar to [this] family from suburban Chicago are turning to honors programs and schools that hand out non-need-based aid…especially if they are ‘too rich for financial aid’,” Powell writes.

Powell quotes a Houston wealth adviser, who told her that for “our folks…those with income $150,000 or higher or $200,000 plus…it also depends on how many kids you have and other factors.”

“Many parents realize there’s a shortfall in funds available as the cost of college continues to climb,” Powell writes.

“‘Thirty years ago, putting your kid through school was like buying a car. Now it’s like buying a house,'” the adviser told Powell.

Powell writes that “Many National Universities, institutions that offer a full range of undergraduate majors as well as master’s and doctoral programs, offer these types of programs along with merit aid to attract high-achieving students to their campuses, college experts say.

The same wealth adviser says “his clients are turning down top-tier schools such as Rice University and Southern Methodist University for in-state honors programs at the University of Texas—Austin or Texas A&M University—College Station because it’s better value for the money.”

“People are making their own way in the world,” the suburban mom told Powell, “and I don’t think you need to spend $70,000 a year on college to get ahead.”

Update No. 2: It’s Complicated–the 2016 Edition of Honors Ratings and Reviews

By John Willingham, Editor

Honors colleges and programs are complex. If you think about it, how could they not be? Take a (generally) large public research university with many thousands of students, sprawling campuses, hundreds of professors, and the huge football stadium somewhere close at hand–and then create an honors program, or even a college within a college, a hybrid for high achievers who might have gone elsewhere.

Any book that attempts to rate or review honors programs can skim the surface and use only a handful of criteria that are relatively simple to assess, or the book can go inside honors in order to explain the more subtle differences. My first book on honors programs was, in retrospect, simplistic. The second was much more in-depth, but did not capture or explain precisely the many types and actual sizes of honors classes, especially sections that are “mixed” or “contract” sections. (A mixed section has honors students as well as non-honors students, the latter often majors in the discipline; in a typical honors contract section,  only one or two honors students receive credit for doing work in a regular section.)

The third book will be the best, and I hope will do justice to the complexity of honors education. But beware: the new book will somewhat complicated itself.
(And getting it out is complicated, too. I am hoping for mid-September. There will be 50 in-depth rated reviews, plus either 5 or 10 summary reviews, time permitting.)

A big reason involves a prospective student who has received an acceptance letter from the prestigious first-choice private college or public elite–but the need-based aid falls short. The “safe” public university, typically in-state or nearby, now receive more serious attention. It is at this point that the honors program or college can incline a student one way or the other.

It is obvious that prestige often plays a large role when it comes to first and second choices of a college. Now with the need-based aid falling short, the cost of prestige has become a problem for the prospective student. If the safe school does not have the same prestige, then what exactly does it have that would is most important to the student, prestige now set aside? Here is the time that parents and students look at the nuts and bolts.

Of course cost is still a huge factor. I will have a much-improved section on merit scholarships at each honors program.

How about small classes, the types of classes, the range of honors classes across disciplines? The data I have this time around is far better than I was able to receive for previous editions; the ratings will be much more precise for class size, type, and range.

But this is the main reason the new book will be somewhat complicated itself. In order to define these types of classes, there are additional categories: Number of Honors Sections; Honors Sections in Key Disciplines (15); Level of Enrollment–the extent to which honors students remain active in the programs; Honors-only class sizes, and the percentage of these actually taken; mixed class sizes, with the same information about the percentage of students; and contract sections, also with the percentage.

How about honors housing? Many prestigious private colleges have residence facilities that are outstanding. Now I will report not only the amenities for honors housing but also the availability of that housing. The rating will now show the reader the ratio of honors dorm space to the number of first- and second-year students in the program.

Did I say ratio? Yes, and some of the ratings can veer into wonkish territory. So…please be patient with the details, for they are where the decisions are made. The student who loves and thrives in small classes needs that detail, and the additional information about mixed and contract classes. The student who wants honors seminars and dozens of honors classes in his or her discipline, will focus on those details; the student who doesn’t have time for seminars will want the straight-from-the shoulder program. And the students who not only desire high-quality dorms but actually want to know if there is space in those dorms, will focus on that detail.

For many students and families, the merit aid and total cost will be the deciding factors. Notice that I did not say “detail.”

While the idea that an honors program “offers the benefits of the liberal arts experience along with the advantages of a major public research university” is generally true, the ways in which honors programs try to meet this goal vary greatly. The new book will be the best effort yet to light up the ways honors works in public institutions.

Honors College, Honors Program: Differences Revisited

In an earlier post, Honors College, Honors Program: What’s the Difference, we wrote about the sometimes minor differences between honors colleges and honors programs, while noting that, in general, honors colleges tend to have more structure, somewhat smaller classes, more staff support, and more state of the art residence halls.

In that post, the focus was on stats and structural differences. In this post, we want to highlight another reason that several flagship institutions have, and will continue to have, honors programs rather than honors colleges. Undoubtedly, the current trend in higher ed is to develop new honors colleges or to integrate existing honors programs into a separate honors college. This can lead to the perception that honors colleges are inherently better, more advanced, or more in tune with the need to create centers of excellence in public universities.

In the case of most of the public universities with an average U.S. News ranking of 70 or higher, however, the overwhelming preference is to offer an honors program–or programs–rather than establish a separate honors college within the universities. It is no coincidence that these schools, most notably Michigan, UCLA, UNC Chapel Hill, Virginia, Illinois, UW Madison, Washington, UT Austin, and Ohio State have very strong overall academic reputations and high faculty rankings across all major disciplines.  (UC Berkeley and William and Mary do not have any university-wide honors programs at all.)

When greater selectivity is combined with outstanding academic reputation and stellar faculty, students with Ivy-ish ambitions can say, with confidence, that the smaller communities and classes created by the honors programs at these schools are the final steps that bring them to substantive equivalence with elite private universities. The academic rep is present, and the faculty is strong even in non-honors classes. There is no real need to establish a separate, often larger honors college in order to concentrate the academic resources there, because those resources are university-wide.

There are exceptions, of course. When highly-ranked public universities receive generous private endowments or donations to establish honors colleges, they have done so. The Schreyer Honors College at Penn State is an outstanding example.  The Purdue Honors College is another that has benefited greatly from private donations.

The University of Maryland Honors College is another exception. Though not named for wealthy benefactors, the college was created almost half a century ago, in 1966, making it one of the oldest and most respected honors colleges in the nation.

Private endowments can also fund large honors colleges within flagships that are not rated among the top 60 public universities, making those honors colleges so notable that they often compete with public and private elites. Examples include ASU’s Barrett Honors College, the University of South Carolina Honors College, Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon, and the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at Ole Miss.