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.

Top Honors Programs, Honors Components Only

So, what do we mean by “honors components only”?

In our latest book of honors program ratings, we listed the honors programs and colleges that received an overall five “mortarboard” rating. One component of the rating model used in order to determine the leading programs is prestigious scholarships–the number of Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, Goldwater, etc., awards earned by students from each university as a whole.

In most cases, honors programs at these universities contribute most of the winners of these awards, but not in all cases. So while the prestigious scholarship component is worth including, we do not want it to override the 12 other rating components used in the ratings. These components are “honors only” because they do not include awards earned by non-honors students of the university as a whole.

Therefore, we decided to do a separate rating, one that is not included in the new book, INSIDE HONORS. The new rating uses only the 12 components listed below. Farther down,  you can see whether the prestigious scholarship component had a major impact on the overall ratings of top programs.

Those 12 additional components are…

  • Curriculum Requirements
  • Number of Honors Classes
  • Number of Honors Classes in 15 Key Disciplines
  • Extent of Honors Enrollment
  • Average Class Size, Honors-only Sections
  • Overall Average Class Size, All Sections
  • Honors Graduation Rate-Raw
  • Honors Graduation Rate-Adjusted for Test Scores
  • Student to Staff Ratio
  • Type and Extent of Priority Registration
  • Honors Residence Halls, Amenities
  • Honors Residence Halls, Availability

Below is a comparison of the honors programs that received a five mortarboard OVERALL RATING (left side) and those that receive the same rating for HONORS COMPONENTS ONLY (right side), all listed ALPHABETICALLY.

Arizona St Clemson
Clemson CUNY Macaulay
CUNY Macaulay Georgia
Georgia Houston
Houston Kansas
Kansas New Jersey Inst Tech
New Jersey Inst Tech Oregon
Oregon Penn St
Penn St South Carolina
South Carolina Temple
UT Austin UT Austin

It is notable that the overlap is almost identical: Arizona State is not on the second list, while Temple is not on the OVERALL list but is on the HONORS COMPONENTS list.

We must add that Temple barely missed a five mortarboard overall rating, while ASU was similarly close to making the honors components list.

Inside Honors: Class Sizes, Classes by Discipline, Sections Per Student

By John Willingham, Editor

I thought it was time to raise my head from the ocean of data I am crunching for the 2016 edition of our Review.

Since we have much more–and much better–data this time around, the book itself will be even more data-driven than its predecessors. We will still have narrative profiles for each program/honors college under review, but it’s likely that within each narrative there will be a table that summarizes our findings.

Here is some of what readers will see in the new edition:

Class Sizes–Instead of reporting only the average class size for honors-only classes, we will show, in addition to honors-only class sizes, the average class sizes for mixed sections (classes with honors credit but including some or many non-honors students), and even the class sizes for honors contract sections (regular classes in which honors students do extra work for honors credit). What I can say at this point is that the total class size metric will be based on a combination of the above. This change alone could result is some significant changes in our ratings.

Contract Sections–In the past, we have focused on regular honors sections, and we are somewhat tardy in giving some attention to a fairly widespread practice in honors education: contract sections. These are sometimes called honors options, honors enhancements, etc. As noted above, these sections generally feature an agreement between the honors student and instructor (as approved by honors staff) according to which the student does extra work to earn honors credit. In a few programs, honors contracts may account for more than 30% of the total honors class enrollment in a given term. The 2016 edition will present views on the relative value of these types of classes. There are many pros, as well as some cons. Stay tuned.

Course Offerings, by Academic Department–In the 2014 edition, we tried to give readers an idea of the general range and type of honors classes offered by each honors college or program. Although we did approximate estimates of honors classes by academic discipline, I thought that that aspect of the 2014 ratings was surely the most subjective. This time around, the number of classes by discipline will be strictly quantified so our readers can know how many honors sections are available, and in a ratio to total honors participants.

Courses in “Key” Disciplines–It goes without saying that one person’s choice of “key” academic disciplines will probably not be the same as another person’s choice. What we plan to do is emphasize the classes in disciplines that we believe should be offered by honors programs, regardless of how popular the discipline might be as a major. For example, relatively few college students major in philosophy and many students (and parents) might not place much “value” on courses in that discipline. But honors students are supposed to be different–more motivated, more curious, more open, and more capable of in-depth critical thinking. From the more obviously practical perspective, we also place speech and communications classes in the key group. (One reason we favor small classes for honors students is that those classes typically require students to develop argumentation and group communication skills.)

Other “key” disciplines that we will quantify are biology; business and related disciplines; chemistry; computer science and related disciplines; economics; English; engineering; history; math; physics; political science; psychology; and anthropology/sociology.

So, if you want to know how many honors chemistry sections a program offers, or how many of those relatively scarce honors polysci, econ, or physics sections are available, we will tell you how each program stacks up.