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?
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:
finding coursework so interesting that they do more work than is required;
communicating with profs outside of class;
working with faculty in activities other than coursework;
increasing effort in response to higher standards;
completing assigned reading;
attending to self care, eating, and sleeping;
spending more time studying;
performing more community service and volunteer work;
participating in student organizations;
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.
Two years ago, I began my journey to help my high achievement son find colleges that were a good fit for him and personal enough to challenge him and help him grow as a person. My initial efforts were deeply disappointing. Most elite colleges were far above our ability to pay, yet somehow the school calculators suggested that we could pay the full cost. Only a select few of the top schools offer merit aid, and in most cases it is very competitive. The options seemed to be middling schools (if we were lucky enough to receive a merit award) or our public in-state university system.
Then I stumbled across the website run by John Willingham, which led me to the previous edition of this book. That book was very helpful on our college search. Now my son is a senior in HS and we are in the application process. Soon we will be in the decision process, and some of the schools we discovered in his guide are on the short list. I bought the updated version of this book to help us in making final decisions. I am happy to say the new guide is even more helpful than the previous edition.
Read below for my review and see if this book might help you as much as it did me.
As college costs continue to skyrocket and elite universities eliminate merit scholarships, the opportunity for high achieving students to attend such universities is diminishing. If your family is not wealthy enough to spend $250,000 or more for 4 years of college, it may seem that a public, in-state university is the only choice.
But what if large classes and a focus on research over teaching are not the right fit for your high achieving child?
Thankfully this amazing book by John Willingham will give you mountains of data on a little known option known as the Public University Honors College or Program. These programs differ considerably in their structure and Mr. Willingham’s guide will help you find options that are the best fit for the type of learner and person your child is.
•Looking for a community of like-minded learners and enhanced access to research? This book will lead you to schools you may not have thought of.
•Looking for lots of seminars with a discussion based, interdisciplinary focus? There are options for that as well.
•What if I told you there was a community of less than 900 committed students in a university with over 25,000 undergrads. These lucky students share small classes, gain enhanced advising from the faculty and are groomed for prestigious awards such as Rhodes Scholarships?
Such programs exist. Often these programs offer generous merit awards to assist the nations brightest young minds to attend. Mr. Willingham does an excellent job of separating the best programs from the also rans. He also teaches the reader how to ask the right questions about other Honors programs that may not be reviewed in the book. That way we are empowered with the tools to evaluate any program.
Honors Programs / Colleges can be the best of both worlds; giving the more intimate learning experience of small school with the resources and experience of a large university. We have found schools that we never would have looked at for regular admission that are strong contenders for his decision next spring.
If you have a high achieving child and are unable to afford the elite private colleges, I strongly recommend this book. In fact, I will be donating my copy to our school guidance office when finish with it.
Editor’s Note: This is the third and final post in our series on honors program completion rates.
In the first post, we wrote about the hybrid structure of honors programs and how that can affect honors completion rates. An honors completion rate is the percentage of honors students who complete all honors course requirements for at least one option by the time they graduate. The second post presented a tentative formula for evaluating honors completion rates.
This post has two parts. The first part compares honors completion rates of main option and multiple option honors programs; the second part (2) a compares completion rates of honors colleges and honors programs.
Main option programs emphasize only one curriculum completion path, usually requiring more than 30 honors credits and often an honors thesis as well. Multiple option programs offer two or more completion paths for first-year students. One option might require 24 honors credits; another might require 15-16 credits. Either of these might also require a thesis.
Many universities are now establishing honors colleges. These usually have a dean and a designated staff of advisors. They typically provide at least enough honors housing space for first-year students. Some began as honors programs and then re-formed into honors colleges. Quite a few honors colleges have significant endowments.
Honors programs do not have a dean, but are administered by a director and staff. Sometimes there are few real differences between honors colleges and programs. In general, however, honors colleges have more staff and offer more access to honors housing.
We received data from 23 honors colleges and eight honors programs, having a combined enrollment of more than 64,000 honors students. The 31 parent universities had an average U.S. News ranking of 126, ranging from the low 50s to higher than 200.
The first summary is below:
PART ONE: SUMMARY STATISTICS
MAIN OPT PROGRAMS VS
MULTI OPTION PROGRAMS
NO. OF PROGRAMS
NO. HONORS STUDENTS
COMPLETION % rate
UNIVERSITY GRAD RT
UNIV GRAD RT>COMPLETION RT
HONORS GRAD RATE
HONORS GR RT>COMPLETION RT
HONORS GR RT>UNIV GR RT
TEST SCORES ADJ TO SAT
CURRICULUM REQUIREMENT AVG
THESIS OPTION Y/N
THESIS REQ ALL OPTIONS Y/N
DORM RMS / FR & SOPH
HON CLASS SEATS / HON STUDENTS
APPLY SEP TO HONORS Y/N
The second summary, comparing honors colleges and honors programs, is below:
Honors completion rates, as we noted in a previous post, are a complicated issue. They represent the percentage of students who enter an honors program and then complete all honors requirements for at least one completion option by the time they graduate.
They are related to university freshman retention rates and university graduation rates, but in order to evaluate them there must be some workable baseline completion rate derived from a significant sample of programs.
Honors deans and directors at 31 public university honors programs contributed the data used to calculate the values in the next paragraph, along with extensive additional data we use in rating honors programs. The 31 programs enrolled more than 64,000 honors students in Fall 2017. At some point we might include completion rates as a metric; if we do, then this formula, or an improved version, might be used.
This tentative formula takes into account (1) the average (mean) honors completion rate for the whole data set (57.88 percent); (2) the mean university-wide freshman retention rate for the whole data set (86.81 percent); (3) the completion rate of each program; (4) the freshman retention rate for the parent university of each program; and (5) the graduation rate of each university.
The formula assumes that a desirable target honors completion rate should at least equal the midway point between the university graduation rate and the adjusted honors completion rate.(See examples below, however, for programs that have honors completion rates that exceed the university graduation rate.) The formula can easily be changed to include lower or higher target levels by increasing or reducing the divisor.
H = the mean honors completion rate for the data set;
F = the mean freshman retention rate for the data set;
P = the program completion rate;
C = the completion rate of each program adjusted to the university freshman retention rate (.67*R);
R = the freshman retention rate of each parent university;
G = the graduation rate of each parent university;
T = the estimated target completion rate after the formula is applied. T = (G + C) /2. This is an estimate of what the minimum completion rate should be, given the university’s freshman retention rate and graduation rate, and the mean completion rate and mean freshman retention rate for this data set. Other data sets would of course have different data, but the formula could still be applied.
The completion rates of ten programs exceeded the graduation rates of their parent universities.
Here is the formula, where P = 61%; R = 92%; G = 83%:
First step = (H/F), or .57.88 / 86.81. The result is .67. This is a constant for this data set.
Second step is to adjust the completion rate in relation to the university freshman retention rate = .67 *R, or .67 *92. The result is 61.64 (C), a bit higher than the actual program completion rate of 61.0 (P), because of the relatively high freshman retention rate.
Third step is to adjust the completion rate C in relation to the university graduation rate in order to calculate the target completion rate. T = (G + C) /2, or (83 + 61.64) /2 = 72.32 (T).
Fourth step is to calculate P – T, which would be 61.00 – 72.32 = –11.32. This step calculates the extent to which the program completion rate varies from the estimated target rate. The program is performing below the estimated target rate. The relatively high university graduation rate is the main reason.
Honors program A had a program completion rate (P) of 84%, a freshman retention rate (R) of 88%, and a university graduation rate (G) of 73%. The C rate would be .67*88, or 58.96. The T calculation would be (G + C) /2, or (73 + 58.96) / 2= 65.98 (T). Now calculate C – T, (or 84 – 65.98) = +18.02. This program is performing far above its estimated target rate.
Honors program B had the same program completion rate (P) of 84% but a much higher freshman retention rate (R) of 95%, and a university graduation rate (G) of 81%. Calculating the C value would be .67*95, or 63.7, and the T would (G + C) /2, or (81 – 63.7) /2 = 73.325. When we calculate C – T, (84 – 73.325), the result is + 11.675. This program is performing well above its estimated rage, but even with the same completion rate as Program A, the impact of higher graduation and freshman retention rates for Program B causes its relative performance rating to be lower than Program A. In other words, the expectations were higher for Program B. Both programs are exceptional in that their honors completion rates exceed their university graduation rates.
Honors program D had a program completion rate (P) of 40%, a freshman retention rate (R) of 82%, and a university graduation rate (G) of 53%. C would be .67*82, or 54.94. T would be (G + C) /2, or (53 + 54.94) /2 = 53.97. Calculating C – T, the result is 40 – 53.97, or -13.97. Program D is significantly underperforming based on the formula.
This post, by editor John Willingham, is about 4,000 words in length, so not a quick read. As the title indicates, the issue of honors completion is complicated. The post makes frequent references to statistical data. Our thanks to the 31 honors deans and directors who contributed data for this report and for the Fall 2018 edition of INSIDE HONORS, due out in early October.
This post was edited on August 6, 2018. All changes were minor.
First of all, what is an honors completion rate?
It is the percentage of honors program entrants who complete the required honors curriculum by the time of graduation. Many programs have more than one honors curriculum completion option; for example, entering freshmen may be required to finish 30 honors credits and write a thesis for the main option, or they might need to complete only 18 credits without a thesis for a lower option. Honors completion rates are not the same as graduation rates. Entering honors students, because of their strong credentials, will have very high graduation rates regardless of honors completion.
Completing the requirements of an honors program is typically not directly related to graduating with Latin honors (cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude) even though some universities do make the connection. Latin honors are most often tied to a student’s university grade point average or class standing. In many colleges and universities a student can graduate with Latin honors without taking any honors courses or writing a thesis. Many, if not most, honors program completers do also earn Latin honors.
At least two researchers have written that honors completion rates can be extremely low (in the 30 percent range) and that, because publicizing completion rates can be embarrassing to some programs and their parent institutions, the rates are a “Dirty little secret.” Academic studies leave the impression that having 50 percent or more of honors students complete one or more options could be, if not desirable, then acceptable. Using any set percentage as a standard is, however, questionable. (Please see below.)
University of South Carolina
The data we have received does provide evidence that some program completion rates are as low as 30 percent. On the other hand, the mean six-year completion rate in our own study of 31 honors programs, enrolling more than 64,000 honors students, was 58 percent. The years covered were 2010-2011—2015-2016.
Some honors educators believe that offering the lower, “mid-career” options increases the likelihood of at least some level of completion. The researchers cited above found evidence that mid-career completers are also inclined to add higher levels of honors completion before graduation.
Academic studies of honors retention, completion, and university graduation rates have focused on individual programs rather than on a significant range of programs. These studies have evaluated the impact that program curriculum requirements, entrance test scores, high school GPAs, housing, co-curricular activities, first-year seminars, and other factors have had on honors retention, completion, and graduation.
Our own work began with an analysis of 14 factors: program size; mean test scores of admitted students; number of honors credits required for completion; six-year graduation rate of honors entrants; six-year university graduation rates; university freshman retention rates; number of honors sections offered; average size of honors classes; number of honors sections in key academic disciplines; percentage of honors program members occupying classroom seats; comparison of main option and multiple option program completion rates; impact of a thesis requirement; the percentage of honors residence hall places available for the first two years; and the impact of requiring a separate honors application or credentials. After considering the potential value of each factor as an independent variable in our final models, we excluded some of factors based on tested co-linearity.
Again, we will publish a full statistical report in a separate post. We have also developed a formulafor estimating target completion rates, taking into account variations in rates for honors completion, freshman retention, and university-wide graduation.
Below is a detailed discussion of the honors completion issue.
Honors educators and university administrators have a keen interest in achieving high honors completion rates. Honors students bring higher test score profiles to the university as a whole, and one would anticipate that being in an honors program would make it even more likely that these students would go on to graduate and, in the process, improve the university’s retention and graduation rates.
While the academic studies make it clear that honors student entrants, whether completers or not, have high retention and graduation rates, it is not altogether clear that they have higher rates than those of non-honors students who entered the university with equivalent credentials.
Evidence does indicate, however, that after one or two years in an honors program, students do have better critical thinking skills than similarly qualified non-honors students, probably due to smaller, interdisciplinary classes in the first year and greater interaction with faculty, mentors, and fellow students. And of course these skills and a greater likelihood of obtaining strong faculty recommendations should help students to gain entrance to prestigious graduate and professional schools or find highly desirable and remunerative employment.
Arizona State University
Students who do not actually complete all honors requirements do not perform as well academically as honors completers and also take somewhat longer to complete their undergraduate work. One reason: almost all honors students enjoy some form of priority registration.
The principal goals of honors educators and administrators are to improve the metrics of the host university by enrolling high quality students and to provide those students with an enhanced education that can compare favorably with the education one might receive in an elite private college or university.
Our data and other studies show that honors programs do meet the goal of improving university metrics. Honors entrants (not necessarily program completers) on average graduate at a rate 19.7 percentage points higher than the rate for their parent universities as a whole, according to our data. For programs housed in universities with relatively low university graduation rates, the difference can be more than 35 percentage points. (Of course, honors entrants who graduate make up a part of the graduation rate of the university as a whole.)
The main goal of honors educators, however, is to provide an enhanced education.
Honors completion rates should surely be one measure of meeting this goal. Low completion rates are an especially discouraging result given the cost and effort allocated to honors. “Non-participation or minimal participation of honors students is the honors equivalent of poor overall university retention and graduation rates,” according to one paper on the subject.
The quote is probably accurate when it comes to describing the mindset of honors educators. But comparing honors completion rates to, for example, the graduation rates of elite colleges and universities is problematic. Honors programs are a hybrid; this all but universal, structural reality clearly differentiates honors programs from most elite colleges, which generally do not have honors programs. (More on the hybrid issue below.)
Comparing honors completion rates with the graduation rates of the parent university as a whole is more reasonable, provided that there is some baseline ratio of honors completion rates to university graduation and freshman retention rates. Programs in our study with completion rates above the mean of 58 percent do, on the whole, have completion rates that match the graduation rates for the parent universities. Programs with completion rates below the mean, on average, see those rates failing to match the university graduation rate by about 20 percentage points. (These rates and ratios will be discussed in the next post, and, again, we have developed a baseline formula for estimating target completion rates.)
Honors programs seek to combine the best qualities of an elite private college with those of a large research university. In general, this means that the “elite private college” components of this hybrid model are smaller classes, more interdisciplinary sections and class discussion, more faculty mentoring, completion of a substantial honors curriculum and sometimes an undergraduate thesis, and a high level of collegiality in the form of co-curricular activities and access to honors housing.
The advantages of the “large research university” include academic majors in abundance, relationships with a broader range of students, more undergraduate research opportunities, study under nationally recognized scholars, the enjoyment of big college football and other athletics, larger alumni networks, and life in a “college town” that is centered on the large university. Some of these advantages are, however, double-edged (see below).
The hybrid model, if realized, would be for many students an ideal college experience. But one can imagine how daunting it is to meet such expectations–to match private elites at their own game and to optimize the research university experience–all simultaneously. Honors and university administrators would like to see honors completion rates that equal or exceed parent university graduation rates, or even the graduation rates of elite colleges. But in the context of honors completion rates, some of the hybrid components are positive while others can work to lower completion rates.
THE HYBRID MODEL: WHAT MAKES IT WORK?
Six of the 31 programs in our study had six-year honors completion rates of 80 percent or higher. (But recall that honors entrants, regardless of honors completion, do graduate from the host university at a much higher rate than the rate for all students, on average about 87 percent.)
These programs are, in alphabetical order, by university: Arizona State Barrett Honors College; CUNY Macaulay Honors College; University of Illinois Campus Honors Program; Penn State Schreyer Honors College; University of South Carolina Honors College; and the UT Austin Plan II Honors Program. Programs with rates of 70 percent or higher, in alphabetical order, are Clemson Calhoun Honors College and the Colorado State Honors Program.
Colorado St University
The six programs with completion rates of 80 percent or higher have striking differences. Barrett Honors College at ASU and the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State make very extensive use of honors contracts and mixed sections. Compared with the funding required for separate honors sections, the cost of contract and mixed sections is much less. Honors contracts allow a student to take a non-honors course for honors credit if the student “contracts” with the instructor to do some form of additional work. Mixed sections are those that include honors and non-honors students; they should be more rigorous or have an honors-only discussion or lab section. Schreyer Honors College at Penn State has an extremely large percentage of mixed sections—but honors students make up a high percentage of total students in those sections.
The UIUC Campus Honors Program and the UT Plan II program, both small in size, have a far more structured curriculum that does not include contract or mixed section credit. Plan II students receive most of their honors credit through Plan II-specific courses, even in subjects such as physics. CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College students take honors-only classes offered by the honors college or by academic departments. The South Carolina Honors College offers an impressive range of honors-only classes of the same type, and only about 11 percent of sections are mixed. The program does not offer contract options.
Contract and mixed sections give students a lot of flexibility. Many of these courses are upper-division, so students can continue to receive honors credit throughout their time in the program, without having to wait for a specific honors-only course to open. It is difficult for many large honors programs to achieve four-year involvement without utilizing contract and mixed sections. Yet the South Carolina Honors College and the Macaulay Honors College at CUNY both have more than 2,000 honors students and also have strong four-year participation.
But based on statistical analyses of the data from all 31 programs, common predictive factors emerge: high university freshman retention rates; a substantial honors curriculum (30 credits or more); an emphasis on one completion option; and enhanced access to honors housing. Other positive factors include higher test scores, important to freshman retention rates; and smaller class sizes. Both of these factors have their greatest impact in programs with multiple, lower completion requirements.
As a variable in multiple regression, the impact of curriculum “flattens” because much of its effect appears in the variables for main option emphasis, honors grad rates, housing, separate honors application, and especially by participation if the latter is also a variable. The same flattening occurs with the impact of test scores, much of it expressed by the freshman retention variable.
Penn St Schreyer students
Programs looking for a “shorthand” method of assessing completion issues might find it in one overriding measure, which we call “participation”: the percentage of honors program members who occupy classroom seats in a given term. This participation rate correlates very significantly with honors completion, as one would expect. If an honors program has 1,000 members, and 1,000 honors credit classroom spaces are filled in a given term, then the participation percentage is 100. But because some honors students almost always take more than one honors class per term, it is common for participation percentages to be higher than 100. (If 1,000 members occupied 1,100 classroom spaces, then the participation rate would be 110 percent.)
The mean participation rate for all 31 programs was 129 percent. For the 16 programs with completion rates above 58 percent, the mean participation rate was 150 percent. For the 15 programs with lower completion rates, the mean participation rate was 108 percent.
For main option programs, the participate rate was 1.49; for multiple option programs, it was 1.11.
(So, a path to improvement might be >More Honors Housing >Emphasis on 30+ Credit Curriculum >Increased Freshman Retention >More Honors Class Sections and Disciplines>More Classroom Spaces Occupied>Higher Participation>Higher Completion Rate. This path, like most things in higher education, is impossible without funding. All honors deans and directors want to achieve high completion rates. The fact is that almost all honors programs do their best with the resources they have been dealt—and it is the rare honors student who does not benefit from a program even if he leaves after a year or two.)
Clemson University Honors Center
Out of 11 programs in our study with an honors curriculum requirement of 30 credits or higher, only one had a completion rate below 50 percent. The mean curriculum requirement for the six programs with a completion rate of 80 percent or higher was 37 credits. The overall mean for the 31 programs, when we averaged the multiple completion options for programs that offered them, was 27 credits.
One notable finding was that main option programs* with significantly stronger curriculum requirements (mean of 31.8 credits) had an average completion rate of 67.8 percent compared with an average rate of 48.5 percent for programs with multiple (lower) completion requirements (mean of 22.1 credits). This finding seems to contradict previous evidence and assumptions. We note that 24 of the 31 contributors to our study are either flagship or designated land-grant universities, but we have no data related to the differences between their programs and those at other types of institutions. The average U.S. News ranking of the 31 programs was 126, so the study was not limited to “public elites.” The highest ranking of any programs was 52. (In case anyone is curious: There is no significant correlation between the U.S. News rankings and honors completion rates.)
*(Included in main option programs are two programs that, while technically offering two options, have essentially the same total completion credit requirement for each option and have no mid-career option. In addition, option categories were also defined according to the curriculum requirements that honors programs offered for first-year entrants only, except we classified one program with a significant number of sophomore and junior transfers as a multiple option program.)
A precise calculation of curriculum requirements for multiple option programs would have included the proportion of honors students completing each option. In some multiple option programs more than 75 percent of students complete the highest option; in other programs fewer than 10 percent of students do so.
Although program size did not emerge as a clear predictor, the main option programs include four that have fewer than 1,000 honors students. Meanwhile, the smallest multiple option program has an enrollment of more than 1,300 students.
All 16 multiple option programs had an honors thesis option or requirement. The University of Arizona Honors College, the University of Arkansas Honors College, the Oregon State Honors College, and the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts, all with multiple options, do require an honors thesis for all options. Eleven of 15 main option programs had a thesis option, with nine listing a thesis as required. Regression models did not, however, establish that a thesis requirement or option had a significant impact on completion rates for the whole data set. But it appears that the combination of a significant thesis requirement along with relatively low university freshman retention rates (79-83 percent range) might contribute to low completion rates.
As for housing, the six programs with the highest completion rates offered .84 honors residence hall spaces per every first- and second-year honors student. The mean for all 31 programs was .53 residence hall spaces, or slightly more than one dorm space for first-year entrants only.
With respect to university freshman retention rates, the mean rate for the top six programs was 93.3 percent, while the overall mean freshman retention rate for 31 programs was 86.6 percent. Programs with completion rates at or above 58 percent had a mean university freshman retention rate of 88.9 percent; programs with lower completion rates had a mean university freshman retention rate of 84.2 percent. These bare statistics along with statistical models point clearly to freshman retention rates as being the most important institutional factor related to honors completion. They are co-linear with university graduation rates and almost as closely tied to the graduation rates for honors entrants, but are more significant than university graduation rates in relation to honors completion rates.
The top six programs had a mean SAT (ACT adjusted to SAT when necessary) of 1433, versus a mean score of 1406 for all 31 programs. The impact of test scores was, however, stronger for multiple option programs, though their mean test score was lower, at 1396. The mean test score for all main option programs was 1417, a difference of only 21 points. It appears, then, that the much stronger completion rates among main option programs as a whole (67.1 percent versus 48.6 percent for multiple option programs) were not the result of proportionately higher test scores.
While all six of the programs with the highest completion rates were main option programs, the six programs with the lowest completion rates were all multiple option programs, with an average completion rate of 34.7 percent. For this group, the mean test score was 1358. Unlike the relationship of test scores to completion rates for the entire data set, it seems likely that, for this lowest subset, test scores would play a significant role; however, we could not confirm such a role statistically. Neither could we do so for the relationship of test scores and completion rates for the top subset.
We also calculate the ratio of enrolled individual honors students to all honors sections, and to total sections in 15 key academic disciplines. Both main and multiple option programs had about the same ratios. These ratios explain why the class size averages for main and multiple option programs are almost exactly the same (24 and 24.4, respectively). However, the absolute numbers of sections offered are much higher for main option programs because, with higher curriculum requirements, they have more students taking classes across all four years.
The six-year graduation rate for honors entrants in main option programs was 88.7 percent; for honors entrants in multiple option programs it was 85.2 percent. This difference would have an impact on university-wide graduation rates. For the six programs with the highest completion rates, the honors graduation rate averaged an impressive 91.3 percent; the honors graduation rate for the six programs with the lowest completion rates was almost eight points lower, at 83.5 percent. Freshman retention rates, test scores, and curriculum have the most impact on honors graduation rates, especially the first two factors, as one would expect. Freshman retention rates and honors graduation rates are remarkably similar.
It is somewhat unusual for honors completion rates to equal or exceed university graduation rates. Eleven of the 31 programs achieved such rates, according to our data. In alphabetical order, they are Arizona State’s Barrett Honors College; Colorado State Honors Program; CUNY Macaulay Honors College; University of Houston Honors College; University of Illinois Campus Honors Program; University of Kansas Honors Program; University of Nevada Reno Honors Program; University of South Carolina Honors College; Texas Tech Honors College; UT Austin Plan II Honors Program; and the Virginia Commonwealth University Honors College.
Texas Tech University
CHOICES, AND MORE CHOICES
The part of the hybrid structure that is related to the “large public research university” component is difficult to measure. Of course the resources allocated by the university make possible the scores of academic departments and sub-disciplines available for majors and fund the honors program, or programs, as well. Relatively generous funding allows for more honors sections, smaller classes, undergraduate research, and more housing, all of which are important to participation.
But the one characteristic of honors programs and the public universities in which they reside that receives little attention, in relation to completion rates, is the enormous range of choices that are available. An honors student at a major public university can choose to persevere through a demanding honors curriculum, or not; can choose to attend every home football game and party, or not; can choose among hundreds of degree plans and change to one that is too time-consuming to allow for honors work, or not; join eight or ten of the two hundred groups on campus, or not; and choose to live off-campus or with a non-honors friend, or not.
Their counterparts at elite private colleges do not have a hybrid structure that allows such a range of choices. Of course they can change majors, or, perhaps, change residence halls. They can also choose to spend too much time partying. But they have a smaller range of majors and college organizations from which to choose; and college sports often have limited appeal. And most do not experience large, sprawling campuses where one can feel overwhelmed, although honors programs certainly make big-campus life more collegial.
A larger range of choices, then, is an inherent piece of the “research university” component of the hybrid model, and in our opinion, it can contribute to lower honors completion rates. Some characteristics of a large public university campus (large class sizes, registration issues, social distractions) often cause parents and students to choose smaller, private colleges even at greater cost. Honors programs mitigate but do not eliminate the potential impact of these factors.
The real question is whether greater choice is ultimately negative or positive. All students make good choices and bad choices; college is often the place where they learn the first big lessons about choice. Clearly, however, students who are mature and focused enough to enjoy the large university experience without overindulgence are most likely to take full advantage of their honors opportunities.
Students should also be strongly motivated on their own if they are to undertake honors study and succeed. Their counterparts at elite private colleges must demonstrate their motivation repeatedly, not least during the application process. Our study shows that, for main option programs only, honors admission requirements that require an honors-specific application or credentials beyond those required for regular university admission do have an impact on completion rates.
Twelve of 15 main option programs require honors-specific application materials. Eleven of 16 multiple option programs do. (Some programs simply gather data from the admissions office and then issue invitations to top students already admitted to the university.)
PUBLIC HONORS VS. PRIVATE ELITES
The issue of honors completion is not only linked to the question: Do honors programs actually deliver? Another question often follows: How do honors programs really compare with private elite colleges?
Above we noted that honors participation, a major statistical (and common-sense) factor in predicting honors completion rates, is enhanced to a large extent by substantial curriculum requirements, frequently including a thesis. Assuming that a student is in a public honors program with both a strong curriculum requirement and a high completion rate, does that student graduate with an education comparable with that attained by a student at an elite private college?
The hybrid model carries with it the assumption that students at elite private colleges complete a rigorous curriculum that usually includes extensive undergraduate research and an honors thesis, and that the honors model should strive to do the same.
Like the perception that honors completion rates should approximate graduation rates at elite colleges, the perception that most or all students at elite colleges necessarily pursue an especially rigorous path is inaccurate.
Princeton is the only university in the Ivy League that requires an undergraduate thesis for graduation. Like the rest of the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, Duke, Swarthmore, Amherst, Williams, and other elite schools do not require a thesis. Reed, Chicago, and Bates do have a high number of students who complete an undergraduate thesis. If a student wants to graduate with Latin honors at many elite colleges, or especially to graduate magna cum laude or summa cum laude, or with departmental honors, only then would the student have to write a thesis.
Anecdotal information suggests that only 20-25 percent of students at elite colleges complete a thesis or equivalent project. In addition, grades at elite institutions hover around an A-minus average, bringing into question just how much many of them are actually challenged by the courses they take.
So, yes, given appropriate effort, a student in a public honors program with a strong curriculum requirement and a thesis should receive an equivalent education or, perhaps, even a better education than most students at a private elite college. One can argue, however, that the relatively few students pursuing high Latin or departmental honors at private elite schools can receive an even better education.
Finally, another comparison: Does the education of an honors student who is in a program with, say, a 55 percent completion rate, a 24-credit completion requirement, and no requirement for a thesis compare with that of his or her counterpart at a private elite college?
The private elite college will have a graduation rate about 5-10 points higher than the graduation rate of public university’s honors students. The student body at the private elite will, on the whole, be “smarter” but less diverse, less “real-life,” economically and otherwise. The honors student may well be challenged more by honors work than most students at the private elite are in regular classes. Both students may receive some financial aid, but at the private elite most of the aid is need-based or leaves funding gaps that could leave the student with large student loans. Meanwhile, the honors student and many of his classmates enjoy a large, renewable merit scholarship.
Editor’s Note: Thanks to honors Deans and Directors from across the country, we received more data than ever before in 2016. Most of the data appear in our new book, but periodically we will report on other discoveries that we did not have time to include.
We have written about honors classes several times, having reported on average class sizes and the various types of honors class sections–honors seminars, honors-only classes in the disciplines, mixed honors classes (honors and non-honors students), and contract sections, in which honors students do extra work in a regular class for honors credit.
Before presenting data that show the percentage of class work honors students do in the various class types, here is a brief recap on the average class sizes of honors sections, based on actual, detailed data from 50 major honors programs:
Honors-only class section size= 19.0 students
Mixed sections for honors credit= 51.1 students
Contract sections for honors credit= 60.1 students
OVERALL average size of class sections for honors credit= 26.3 students
But now for the additional, unpublished data.
Since class sizes vary significantly according to the type of class section, here is a summary of the percentage of classroom time that honors students spend in the different section types:
In 22 of the 50 programs we rated, all honors credit sections were “honors-only” sections (no mixed or contract sections).
Across all 50 programs, 83.1% of enrollment time was in honors-only sections.
13.6% of enrollment time was in mixed sections that included both honors and non-honors students. Many of these sections had separate honors-only breakout or lab components.
The remaining 5.1% of enrollment time was in contract sections, in which students in regular classes had to complete extra work for honors credit.
Honors-only classes may be seminars that are generally interdisciplinary, or more discipline-specific classes.
Our findings show that 45.8% of honors-only classes are seminars are interdisciplinary sections, which are typically offered through the honors college or program itself.
The remaining 54.2% of honors-only classes are centered on the academic disciplines, many offered directly by the academic departments.
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of testimonials from students and faculty at leading public university honors colleges and programs.
Rachel Myrick, Political Science & Global Studies Double Major–Honors Carolina has given me an opportunity to study with incredible professors in small classes, and to engage in academic experiences that extend far beyond the classroom. Looking back on my college experience, I realize that Honors Carolina opened so many doors for me. Without those opportunities, I would never have been in a position to win a Rhodes Scholarship.
Sam Bondurant, English & Economics Double Major–From joining my professor at his home to use his personal printing press to seeing firsthand the landmarks that inspired J.R.R. Tolkein in Oxfordshire, Honors Carolina has brought me unique experiences that have indelibly shaped my UNC experience.
Emma Blackwell, Mathematics & Geology Double Major—I love that Carolina is a large university, but one of the things I valued most about Honors Carolina was that it gave me a community I could be part of the minute I stepped on campus. Honors Carolina really helped me feel more at home in my first semester.
John Hu, Business & Computer Science Double Major–Honors Carolina opened a lot of doors for me. It helped me make meaningful connections with people who were very open and enthusiastic about helping me prepare for the employment recruiting process because of our shared experience. I’m extremely grateful to the Honors Carolina network for getting me to where I am today.
Jerma Jackson, Associate Professor of History–My most rewarding teaching experience at the University was in an Honors Carolina course. Students consistently posed such thoughtful questions that the course became an exhilarating teaching — and, indeed, learning — experience for me.
Ashley Rivenbark, Asian Studies & Romance Languages Double Major–It’s almost impossible to sum up the incredible experience that the Weir Fellowship provides. If you want top notch academics, amazing teachers, and classmates who will guide you every step of the way in your Chinese improvement, a vibrant colorful city with delicious food and warmhearted people, and an internship experience that will leave you with powerful impressions and lasting connections, then you have to apply for the Weir Fellowship.
After three months of analyzing data, we are almost at the point of rating at least 50 honors programs, writing their profiles, and adding another 10 or so summary reviews (unrated).
What I can say now is that there will be some significant changes–and some surprises. We are running behind schedule, but I still hope for publication by late September.
Here’s why. The 2014 edition was a great improvement over the 2012 book. In 2012, I was so focused on the importance of honors curriculum and completion requirements, along with the glitz of prestigious scholarships (Rhodes, Marshall, Goldwater, etc.) that the first effort failed to drill deeply into the complexities of honors programs.
The 2014 edition moved the ball forward–about halfway downfield, or more–because I was able to obtain more information from honors deans and directors. I also studied class section data online and derived a lot of useful information about honors-only classes, including average class sizes and a general idea of the disciplines offered.
For the 2016 edition, I knew going in that I needed far more detailed information from the programs themselves to develop precise measures for all class sections (including mixed and contract sections). Fortunately, I have been working with that much better information. The result is that instead of listing the number of honors classes in, say, math, the 2016 edition will report how many sections there are in relation to the total number of honors students.
This approach will have a dramatic impact in some cases. For example, say that Program A has 4 honors math sections might have looked good in the 2014 edition; but if Program A has 1400 enrolled honors students, 4 sections do not look very strong.
Another difference will be in the rating for honors class size. In 2014, the most accurate ratings were for honors-only class sizes. But the fact is that many programs offer much of their honors credit via mixed and contract sections. Accurately measuring the class sizes for these sections is extremely difficult when using only the online data. Indeed, there is no section information about contract sections online. Approximately 60 percent of programs allow credit for honors contracts (basically, doing extra work in a regular section for honors credit). A few have use contracts extensively. The new edition will list the average size of contract and mixed sections (honors and non-honors students in the same class).
Finally, another major difference that will have an impact in 2016 is that the rating for honors housing will have a new dimension: one-third of the rating will now be based on the availability of housing space, in addition to the amenities and dorm layout.
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 andhigh 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.
It is close to a given that whenever the subject of public university honors programs receives widespread attention in the media, many comments from readers point to the alleged unfairness–the “elitism”–of such programs. Some readers, understandably, lament the disproportionate allocation of resources to a relatively small number of students, arguing that the resources should benefit all students.
First, as to the basic charge of elitism, the term clearly applies if it is used to characterize the official membership of highly qualified students in honors colleges and programs. In general, they are among the top 5-10 percent of the entire student body, based on high school gpa’s and standardized test scores.
Second, it is true that specific components of honors programs, especially honors “benefits,” serve to set honors students apart from the overall student body. Prominent among these benefits are special honors dorms and one form or another of priority registration for honors students. (But some honors programs, most notably those at UW Madison, do not provide separate housing because of a conscious effort to avoid charges of elitism.)
Third, all honors programs offer smaller class sections to their students, especially during the first and second years of study. In order to provide these sections, academic departments must sacrifice “production” ratios in the interest of staffing these smaller classes.
If Professor A normally teaches three sections of microeconomics, each with an enrollment of 100, and then replaces one of these with an honors section of 20 students, the production ratios of both Professor A and the econ department are a little less impressive in the provost’s eyes. The emphasis on “productivity” in public universities has become a sort of mantra in the eyes of many critics of state universities, many of them on the political right.
After conceding the above, the justification of special treatment actually depends on (1) whether public honors programs yield sufficient benefit to the whole university to warrant the emphasis they receive; (2) whether their target audience–honors students–really deserves special support, as do other groups (athletes, under-represented ethnic and geographical groups, low-income students, first-generation students, students requiring remedial classes); (3) whether the state and region benefit enough from the continuing presence of honors students; and (4) whether honors programs fill a need by providing slots for high-achieving students, in the absence of a sufficient number of places at, well, elite colleges.
The fact is, many honors colleges and programs allow motivated and proven non-honors students to take honors classes. As former Penn State Schreyer Dean Christian Brady wrote in a recent article on this site, honors can be a “gateway” to transfer and non-honors students who find, after their first year or two in college, that they want to embrace greater challenges. (Dr. Brady is now Dean of the new Lewis Honors College at the University of Kentucky.)
Dr. Jeffrey Chamberlain, Dean of the Hicks Honors College at the University of North Florida, agrees with Dean Brady that “Honors raises the game for the whole university. I am told repeatedly how good it is to have Honors students in non-Honors classes (and Honors students never take all of their classes in Honors). Furthermore, Honors students help non-Honors students in every imaginable way—Honors students are math and science tutors, writing consultants, even RAs, so they contribute to student success across the board.” And, by the way, at a savings to the university.
Some states, such as South Carolina and Alabama, look to honors colleges to attract bright students to the state–and to keep such students from leaving the state to attend college. Avoiding a brain drain from a state or a region is, in its own way, an effort to maintain equity and to support and sustain the state’s economy.
Finally, what should a student do if there is a shortage of places at highly selective colleges and the student has the same credentials as those who are lucky enough to enter the selective schools? We have shown that, despite what some observers claim, there really are not enough places in public and private colleges for all the brightest students in this nation. Is it not fair–equitable, even–to provide places in public honors programs?
Honors News is a regular (not always daily) update, in brief, of recent news from honors colleges/programs and from the world of higher ed. Occasionally, a bit of opinion enters the discussion. These brief posts are by John Willingham, unless otherwise noted.