About the Numbers, Part 2: Curriculum Matters

In previous posts we have discussed the absence of a significant correlation between U.S. News rankings and the number of prestigious scholarships awarded to the public universities that make up the Fifty we are reviewing. While it is true that many public “elites” such as Virginia, North Carolina, and Michigan–all ranked highly in U.S. News rankings–have a high number of students who have won prestigious scholarships, the overall correlation between the rankings of the Fifty and the number of scholarships is quite low.

But as a part of our work, we have analyzed the total curriculum requirements for honors completion of the Fifty, and when the curriculum requirement as a percentage of all hours required for graduation is calculated, we have our “curriculum metric.” When this metric is compared to our metric for prestigious scholarships, we find a significant correlation.

Many universities that, as a whole, are ranked lower than 100 by U.S. News in the national university category, over-perform to a remarkable extent in the attainment of prestigious scholarships, and that over-performance is strongly linked to a higher percentage of credits required for honors completion.

One example is a university whose U.S. News rank places it at number 43 among our Fifty, but with a curriculum requirement ranking number one among the Fifty for honors completion, the university’s prestigious scholarship attainment places it at number 24 among the Fifty, above the median.

Another example is a university that ranks 48 among the Fifty based on U.S. News rankings, but because of a strong curriculum, the school’s attainment of prestigious scholarships places it at number 13 among the Fifty.

On the other hand, a university ranked near the top of our Fifty according to U.S. News comes in last in the number of prestigious scholarships. The university has a limited honors curriculum requirement.

Of course there are exceptions, but the clear statistical message is that curriculum really matters when it comes to attaining the most impressive honors of all.

Honors College, Honors Program? Prestigious Scholarships, By Category

Of the fifty public universities in our survey, 19 have honors colleges (38%), and 31 have honors programs (62%). Below is comparison showing the number of prestigious undergraduate and graduate scholarships awarded, by category.

For purposes of the comparison, we are using the whole history of Rhodes scholarships; Gates and Marshall scholarships since 2001–2011; Churchill Scholarships since 1963; and all Truman Scholars since 1977. Fulbright scholarships are not included in the comparison because those totals have been adjusted for the size of the undergraduate population and raw numbers would be misleading in this comparison. They will be considered in the final review of programs and colleges.

We considered looking only at awards during the last ten years or so, but decided on a combined approach, using all Rhodes awards, for example, because of their prominence in the public mind and because they are the most difficult to earn, given the small number (32 this year) that are awarded to U.S. students. However, we are only counting more recent Marshall awards, as noted above. Postgraduate awards for UC campuses have been adjusted to take into account the dates on which they commenced operations.

The figures reveal that universities with honors programs have a higher proportion of prestigious scholarship winners than do universities with honors colleges, although the latter come close to proportional equality in the category of undergraduate scholarships. One possible explanation for the greater proportion coming from honors programs is that honors colleges are typically a more recent development in honors education; in some cases, the universities of which they are now a part did not have an existing pattern of receiving a large number of prestigious scholarships before the inception of the honors colleges.

On the other hand, the Goldwater Scholarships (1989) and the Udall Scholarships (1996), both for undergraduate research, are relatively recent additions that have given the newer honors colleges an opportunity to prove their value by over-performing in Udall Scholarships and holding their own in Goldwater Scholarships.

Here are the figures, bearing in mind that Honors Colleges are 38% of our Fifty, and Honors Programs are 62% of the Fifty:

Honors Colleges, Udall Scholarships, 44.1% of the total.
Honors Programs, Udall Scholarships, 55.9% of the total.

Honors Colleges, Goldwater Scholarships, 35.2% of the total.
Honors Programs, Goldwater Scholarships, 64.8% of the total.

Honors Colleges, Postgraduate Scholarships, 31.8% of the total.
Honors Programs, Postgraduate Scholarships, 68.2% of the total.