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.

Purdue Honors College Dean to Chair National Honors Committee

Editor’s Note: The following post comes from the Purdue Honors College. Dean Rhonda Phillips will be an asset in bringing greater attention and support to honors programs and colleges within major public research universities.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — With honors colleges growing in popularity among high ability students, the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) has selected Purdue Honors College Dean Rhonda Phillips to co-chair its NCHC Large Research University Committee alongside Mark Law, director of the University of Florida Honors Program.

“NCHC has an opportunity to support large universities and research to build effective honors education by convening R1 institutions,” said Hallie Savage, executive director of the NCHC.  “Through the collaborative work of these institutions, we will engage a broad range of expertise in honors programs and colleges.  This is a unique opportunity for members of large institutions in program development.”

Phillips will head to Seattle for the 51st annual NCHC Conference later this month.  She is uniquely poised to serve as committee co-chair, as she has successfully built the Purdue Honors College to a scholarly community of 2,200 students in just three years.  Under her direction, the college has burgeoning enrollment and a new academic home, tailor-made for gifted students.  The 324,000- square-foot, $90 million Honors College and Residences opened in August.  It houses learning studios, faculty and staff offices, a STEAM lab and large community gathering spaces, among other things.

“I look forward to working with colleagues from around the U.S. to examine the needs of Honors Colleges at large research institutions and determine how we can better serve our students,” Phillips said.  “Right now, honors education has a great deal of momentum.  More students and families are recognizing the added value we provide.  We want to refine honors programming, while ensuring that sustainable growth continues.”

Currently there are dozens of public universities making investments in honors colleges, hoping to compete with historically prestigious private schools to attract the best and brightest.  For example, Rutgers opened an $84.8 million, 170,000 square foot honors college facility in August of last year.  Phillips says in many cases, that focus is paying off.

“Students find we offer many of the same perks and outcomes as the Ivy League for a fraction of the cost, small and supportive classes, undergraduate research opportunities, and a distinguished faculty and student body,” Phillips said.

The National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) is a professional association of undergraduate honors programs, colleges, directors, deans, faculty, staff and students.  With more than 1,300 members in the U.S. and abroad, it provides support to institutions and individuals as they develop and expand honors education.

About Purdue Honors College:

The Honors College, which admitted its inaugural class in 2013, brings together students from all areas of study across campus, along with faculty, staff, alumni and organizational partners, in pursuit of academic excellence. Fostering transformative scholar and leadership development, the college is a community of scholars who learn together and explore ways to connect to Purdue and to the world beyond through engaged service. Website:  https://honors.purdue.edu/

Honors Education: More than Rubrics, Templates, and Outcomes

Editor’s note: The following essay is by Dr. Joan Digby, a professor at Long Island University and Director of the Honors program.  Although we look at basic “outcomes” in trying to evaluate public honors colleges and programs, we agree with Dr. Digby’s criticism of the growing regimentation of higher ed in America and the current over-emphasis on business and bureaucratic terminology.  Our abandonment of numerical rankings reflects our own concern that there are limits to quantifying the real value of higher learning.  This essay is from the website of the National Collegiate Honors Council….

When my goddaughter was eight years old, she was permitted to come from London to New York for a two-week visit. Elanor was precocious and had been asking when she could make this trip from the time she was four. When eight arrived, she was packed and ready. I had never had children, so living with an eight-year-old was an intense experience. What she mainly wanted to do was solve Rubik’s Cube in five minutes flat. When that didn’t happen, she erupted into a volcano of screams and tears. Eventually she figured out how to solve the puzzle and brought her completion time down to about three minutes.

If Ernő Rubik were naming his puzzle, today he would probably go for the pun and call it Rubric’s Cube since rubrics are all people talk about now in education. Remember when the word “paradigm” appeared in every high-toned article? Well, it has been replaced by “rubric.” Here a rubric, there a rubric, everywhere a rubric rubric . . . Old MacDonald had several, and they all add up to little boxes far less colorful and ingenious than Rubik’s Cube.

I’m betting that most of the people who use the word “rubric” know very little about its meaning or history. Rubric means red ochre—red earth—as in BryceCanyon and Sedona. Red headers were used in medieval manuscripts as section or chapter markers, and you can bet that the Whore of Babylon got herself some fancy rubrics over the years. Through most of its history, the word has been attached to religious texts and liturgy; rubrics were used as direction indicators for conducting divine services. In a system that separates church and state, it’s a wonder that the word has achieved so universal a secular makeover. Now it’s just a fancy word for a scoring grid. Think boxes! Wouldn’t they look sweet colored in red?

For decades I have been involved in university honors education. The essence of the honors approach is, dare I say, teaching “outside the box.” Everyone knows that you can’t put round ideas into square boxes, everyone except the people who do “outcomes assessment,” the pervasive vogue in filling in squares with useless information. Here, for example, is the classic definition of rubric as spelled out by the authors of a terrifying little handbook designed to help people who are still awake at three in the morning looking to speed up grading papers:  “At its most basic, a rubric is a scoring tool that lays out the specific expectations for an assignment” (Stevens and Levi 3). There it is, a “tool” to measure “specific expectations,” and those are precisely what we do not want to elicit from students, especially in honors but to my mind across the university.

My goal is not to score or measure students against preconceived expectations but to encourage the unexpected, the breakthrough response that is utterly new, different, and thus exciting—such as a recent student analysis of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” in light of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, an approach that made me rethink the story altogether. The operative word here is “think.” Students attend college, in part, to learn how to think, and we help them engage deeply in “critical thinking.” Wouldn’t it then be hypocritical to take their thoughtful reflections and score them like mindless robots, circling or checking little boxes? Sure it would. That is why, whenever I hear anyone suggest using a “rubric” to grade an essay, I want to let out the bloodcurdling (appropriately red image) scream of an eight-year-old. I’m practicing. I can do it.

What I can’t and won’t do is fill in the little boxes. My field is literature—that is, thought and sensibility expressed in words. My field encourages the subjective, anecdotal, oddly shaped experiences that constitute creative writing. I can tell you a thousand stories about my students, how and what they learn and what will be the outcome of their education. I know their outcome (the plural is ugly) because I write to them for years after they leave school. Many are now my colleagues on campus and my friends all over the world. I can tell you their stories, but I can’t and won’t fill in boxes pretending that these will turn into measurable data. If my colleagues want to do the boxes, I won’t object, but “I’d prefer not to.”

Nor will I read portfolios and brood on what can be gathered about the student writers. English teachers read papers for a living. We assess them, write useful comments, and then return them graded to the students so that they can revise. Doing this is in our blood. For what reason would we dive into a pile of papers on which we are prohibited from writing comments for the sake of producing statistics that don’t even go back to the authors? All writers need suggestions and corrections. If we are not reading papers with the express purpose of providing the students with constructive help, then the act of reading is a waste of time.

I regret to acknowledge that the language and fake measuring tools of the data crunchers have infected even my own department, which now has been coerced into producing lists of goals and objectives with such chalk-grating phrases as “students will use writing as a meaning-making tool” and “generate an interpretation of literature . . . .” Not only the mechanistic language of the document but the fascistic insistence that students “will do” this or that strikes me as an utterly dystopian vision of a university education.

At the very least, English departments everywhere should be the ones to point out that goals and objectives are synonyms and that what the assessment folks really mean are goals and strategies for achieving them.  But “goals and objectives” has become a cant phrase at the core of the outcomes ritual, and I’m afraid there is nothing much we can do to change that.

Whoever came up with the phrase “outcomes assessment” probably has no idea how a liberal education works. We teach, students learn, and, if we are lucky, students reciprocally teach us something in a symbiotic relationship that does not require external administration. It works like this: students attend classes, read, write, engage in labs and other learning activities, pass their courses, even do well, and in time graduate. Faculty enjoy teaching and feel rewarded by the successes of their students. Bingo. That’s it. Nothing more to say or prove. No boxes to fill in. Anyone with an urge to produce data can take attendance at Commencement.

Other horrors have bubbled up to pollute the waters of our Pierian Spring. In addition to rubrics, we now have templates for everything we do. A template is essentially a mold that lets us replicate a structure. In different industries it means a gauge or guide, a horizontal beam functioning to distribute weight, or a wedge used to support a ship’s keel. You can find out more at students’ new best friend, www.dictionary.com.  Yet nowhere in this most accessible word hoard is there a specifically academic meaning for template, a word that must come up at least once in every academic meeting. The template craze implies that everything we do can and must be measured to fit a certain mold.  Not only the word but the increasing use of templates in the university reveal the degree to which academia has become an industrial operation.

In fact, we don’t need templates any more than we need rubrics. They come from the same family of low-level ideas responsible for the mechanical modes of teaching that I reject. If I were a medievalist, I would write an allegorical morality play, an updated version of The Castle of Perseverance, in which virtuous Professors battle vicious Rubrics and Templates, winning the day by driving them off with Open Books—

I concede, maybe Digital Books!

University education, what’s left of it, is at a decisive crossroad that requires us to take a stand against the models that administrations and consultants and accrediting agencies are forcing on us. The liberal arts and sciences are under serious attack, and, if we don’t defend the virtues of imagination and spontaneity in our classes, we will all be teaching from rigid syllabi according to rubrics and templates spelled out week by week as teachers of fifth-grade classes are forced to do.

It so happens that my grandmother, born in 1887, was a fifth-grade teacher. Every Sunday evening she sat at the kitchen table filling out hour-by-hour syllabi for the week to come. I remember a book with little cards, like the library cards we used to tuck into book pockets. No pun intended, but her last name was Tuck. Even then my grandmother resented the mechanical nature of her obligation, calling it with utter contempt “busy work.”

Part of what convinced me to go into college teaching was the desire to avoid busy work and to teach what I was trained to do without people peering over my shoulder or making me fill out needless forms. Throughout my career I have given students general reading lists, telling them that we will get through as many of the works as our discussions allow, eliminate some and add others if our interests take us in different directions. I always say, “There are no literature police to come and check on whether we have read exactly what is printed on this paper.”

But now the literature police have arrived. More and more there is pressure to write a syllabus and stick to it so as to meet absurdly regimented, generally fictitious, and misnamed goals and objectives. This is no way to run a university course and is instead the surest way to drive inspiration out of university teaching and learning.

Tragically, the university is rapidly becoming fifth grade. The terminology that has seeped into university teaching from the lower grades has, to my great horror, also mated with business so that the demons we are now facing believe that we will do as we are told by top-down management so that we attract students, bring in tuition dollars, increase endowments, and pass Go with our regional accreditation bodies. If this sounds like a board game, it is—or perhaps a computer game since everything seems to be played out in distance learning, distance teaching, anything but face-to-face, open-ended, free-form discussion and debate. This pernicious trend has made me one Angry Bird!

Around the campus I see that my young colleagues are running scared. They are afraid that they won’t get tenure and that tenure itself will soon disappear. They are afraid that their small department will be absorbed by another, bigger one. They are afraid that their classes will be cancelled and they will ultimately lose their jobs. We are not in familiar territory because all of the power and control have been misappropriated by business operatives calling for outcomes. We need to remind them that a university—and especially an honors program—is in essence a faculty teaching students. Administrators are hired hands secondary to this endeavor. Moreover, only one outcome is important: students graduate and go into the world to become the next generation of educated people. We need to clear all the rubrics and templates out of the way so that we can teach and they can learn.

To my mind there is nothing but folly in searching for “measurable outcomes”; this is a quest as doomed as searching for the meaning of life. Those who remember Monty Python will get the idea and imagine the Knights Templates dressed up in rubric baldrics, entertaining us with a jolly good “Outcomes Assessment Joust.”


Stevens, Dannelle D., and Levi, Antonia J. Introduction to Rubrics: An Assessment Tool to Save Grading Time, Convey Effective Feedback and Promote Student Learning. Sterling, VA:  Stylus Publishing, 2013.

The author may be contacted at Joan.Digby@liu.edu.