What Are the Differences Between an Honors and a Non-Honors Undergraduate Education?

At last, there is a major study that goes a long way toward answering this important question.

Dr. Art Spisak

Making good use of the increasing data now available on honors programs and their parent institutions, two honors researchers have recently published a major paper that compares honors students and non-honors students from 19 public research universities. Out of 119,000 total students, a total of 15,200 were or had been participants in an honors program.

The study is extremely helpful to parents and prospective honors students who rightly ask how an honors education differs from a non-honors education: How will participation in an honors program shape and differentiate an honors student? Will an honors education be the equivalent of an education at a more prestigious private college?

The authors of the study are Dr. Andrew Cognard-Black of St. Mary’s College of Maryland and Dr. Art Spisak, Director of the University of Iowa Honors Program and former president of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC).The title of their paper, published in the Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, is Honors and Non-Honors Students in Public Research Universities in the United States.”

Dr. Andrew Cognard-Black

Here are the major findings:

Feelings about the undergraduate experience: “In their undergraduate experience, students in the honors group reported a more positive experience, on average, than those in the non-honors group.” Both groups attended classes with similar frequency, but honors students reported greater activity in the following areas:

  1. finding coursework so interesting that they do more work than is required;
  2. communicating with profs outside of class;
  3. working with faculty in activities other than coursework;
  4. increasing effort in response to higher standards;
  5. completing assigned reading;
  6. attending to self care, eating, and sleeping;
  7. spending more time studying;
  8. performing more community service and volunteer work;
  9. participating in student organizations;
  10. and, while spending about the same time in employment, finding on-campus employment more frequently than non-honors students.

Participation in “high-impact” activities: These experiences contribute to undergraduate success and satisfaction as well as to higher achievement after graduation. Some of these are restricted to upperclassmen, so the study concentrated on participation by seniors in high-impact activities, including undergraduate research, senior capstone or thesis, collaborating with a professor on a project or paper, studying abroad, or serving in a position of leadership.

“Those [students] in the honors student segment of the senior sample had markedly higher cumulative college grade point averages.” The cumulative GPA of the honors group was 3.65; for the non-honors group it was 3.31. “A grade point average of 3.31 is located at the 38th percentile in the overall distribution within the study sample, and a grade point average of 3.65 is at the 69th percentile.” The authors found that the very significant difference was “particularly impressive” given that the high school GPAs of honors and non-honors students did not vary so significantly. Honors students were also 14% more likely to have served as an officer in a campus organization.

Students in the honors group were 77% more likely to have assisted faculty in research projects, 85% percent more likely to have studied abroad, and 2.5 times more likely to have conducted undergraduate research under faculty guidance.

Intellectual curiosity: Honors students expressed a statistically significant but not dramatically greater degree of intellectual curiosity; however, their intellectual curiosity was aligned with the “prestige” of an academic major. The study did not measure whether this attachment to prestige reflected a desire for greater intellectual challenge or for higher salaries associated with many such majors. (Or both.) Both groups placed similar emphasis on the importance of high pay after graduation and on career fulfillment.

Diversity: The study found that African American students were only 52% as likely to be in an honors program as they are to be in the larger university sample. Latin American students were 58% as likely. These figures may be due in part to the fact that, as a group, the 19 research universities “are located in states that are somewhat more white than the nation as a whole, but most of the discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that Research 1 universities do not, in general, have enrollments that are especially representative of ethnic and racial minorities.” On the other hand, LGBQ, transgender, and gender-questioning students “appear to be slightly over-represented among honors students.”

Low-income and first generation participation: These students “are significantly and substantially under-represented in the honors group.” Pell Grant recipients are 30% less likely to be in honors than in the non-honors group; and 40% of first-generation students are less likely to be in the honors group.

Test scores and HSGPA: There was a difference between honors and non-honors students, but it was not dramatic. “Regardless of which test score was used, the honors group had scores that were about 10% higher, on average.” (In our ratings of honors programs, we have found that honors test scores were about 17% higher, based on actual honors scores and the mid-range of test scores in U.S. News rankings.) The average high school GPA for the honors group was .11 points higher than for the non-honors group.

The study used data from the 2018 Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey for 2018. Although the study only used data from Research 1 universities that comprise only 3% of all colleges and universities in the nation, R1 universities enroll 28.5% of all undergraduates pursuing four-year degrees.

Research centered on honors education is increasingly important: An estimated 300,000-400,000 honors students are enrolled in American colleges and universities today.





Does Participation in an Honors Program Lower GPAs?

A recent paper by a prominent honors director and associate cites three main concerns of parents and students about participating in an honors program:

“They and/or their parents believe that honors classes at the university level require more work than non-honors courses, are more stressful, and will adversely affect their self-image and grade point average.”

Some students, the authors write, “are likely basing their belief on the experience they had with Advanced Placement (AP) classes in their high schools. Although AP classes are not specifically designed to be more work or more difficult, at their worst they can be little more than that.”

The authors of the paper, “The Effect of Honors Courses on Grade Point Averages, ” are Dr. Art Spisak, Director of Honors at Iowa the University of Iowa and Suzanne Carter Squires, a Churchill Scholar and former Director of Assessment for Iowa honors. Dr. Spisak is also the current President of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC).

As the title states, the authors focused on whether honors participation does in fact lower GPAs, probably the overriding concern of parents and students.

After reviewing and citing previous related studies and conducting two in-depth studies of their own at a large public research university, the authors conclude that “the findings show that the perception of honors courses as adversely affecting GPAs is invalid.”

The previous studies indicated that honors and non-honors students of equal measured ability had about the same GPAs or the honors students had higher GPAs in the first year and about the same GPAs going forward.

An important finding of one study also showed that honors students have “higher self-concepts than do high-ability students not participating in an honors program.”

The first study by Spisak and Squires “began with a cohort of 786 students that was unusual in its makeup and, for that reason, especially apt for the purpose. All 786 students were part of an honors program at a large, public, R1 university. They all had earned their way into the program via a minimum composite ACT/ SAT score of 29/1300 and a high school GPA of at least 3.8. Once in the program, they had to maintain a university GPA of 3.33 to maintain membership.”

“Of the original cohort of 786 honors students, the study considered only the 473 students who had remained in the program for at least two years.” This would appear to indicate a low retention rate, but the program at the time automatically enrolled students who met the stats requirements and many dropped out. Most honors programs use invitation-only approaches now.

“The findings from this first study were that the mean GPA of honors students who took honors classes (3.74) was statistically the same as that of honors students who took no honors courses (3.70).

The second study by Spisak and Squires differed from the first in that it compared honors students’ GPAs in their honors classes to their GPAs for all their classes. The first study, in contrast, compared GPAs of one group of honors-eligible students who took honors courses to those of another group of honors-eligible students who had not taken honors courses.

The results showed that “honors students’ GPAs in their honors courses are statistically the same as their GPAs in all their classes. Thus, the conclusion for the second study is the same as for the first study: honors courses do not adversely affect the GPAs of honors students.”

So…if honors students in honors classes have the same GPAs (or even higher) that students of equal ability in non-honors classes, can one conclude that honors classes are not competitive or demanding?

The likely answer: honors classes typically cover more material and in greater depth than non-honors classes, but smaller class sizes, greater engagement with professors, and encouragement or competition from peers create more interest and focus.