Honors Curriculum: Flexibility vs. Structure

Common sense suggests that there would be three basic types of honors curricula: structured, flexible, or a combination of the two. And that is the case, based on our review of the curriculum descriptions on the 50 websites of the universities under review. It is evident that any of the three models can work effectively, but parents and prospective students might want to consider the following information before making a final choice of an honors college or program:

1. Our evaluation and the resulting scores are based primarily on the quantity of honors hours required or typically taken by students. There may be a qualitative element in our evaluations when it is clear from other published data or from exchanges with honors directors that certain features that may not be prominent on the website are worthy of emphasis. A prime example of this would be a national recognized undergraduate research program. Yet, generally, curricula with a high percentage of required honors courses do better in our evaluation, and most of these combine flexibility with a reasonably understandable structure. Most of these also allow students the honors perk of priority registration, at least for honors courses, and this makes it easier for honors students to complete the more stringent requirements.

2. Programs with flexible curricula also score well if the total hour requirement or typical attainment level is high, even absent a strongly-defined structure. Programs with flexible curricula also correlate better with other excellence factors (e.g., prestigious scholarships) if the flexibility is coupled with priority registration. And this makes sense, too, because a program that allows honors students to literally write their own tickets must enable those students to pick their preferred courses as freely as possible, especially if the total number of required honors courses is high. Allowing honors students to contract for honors credit while taking non-honors courses may be an effective way to avoid offering priority registration, but it is not clear to us, at least, that the contract option actually produces an equivalent result.

3. The programs that are not assigned high scores in the curriculum category usually have a small honors requirement–say, only 14%-21% of courses counted toward graduation are honors courses, including departmental honors courses.

4. Parents and prospective students should be aware, however, that programs that are part of universities with a strong engineering focus have a significantly lower average of total honors requirements, about 19%, and as low as 14% in some schools. This lower quantity results from the time required of engineering students to meet their major requirements, so if the student is in engineering, a lower honors requirement may be regarded as a positive rather than a negative factor.

5. Final thoughts: priority registration is more important–and more justifiable–when more than 27 total semester hours of honors courses are required for graduation. And in general, especially for non-engineering majors, quantity does matter.

Major Public Universities with Best Honors Benefits

In the recent Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs, some 20% of the total score for each university will be for the special benefits that each provides for honors students.

Of this 20%, honors housing will count for 10%; study abroad for 7.5%; and priority registration for honors students for 2.5%. Note: many programs do not regard study-abroad programs as a “benefit” but as an essential part of the curriculum.

Some honors educators believe that an over-emphasis on benefits detracts from what should be the primary focus of honors education: learning at the highest level, but without too many perks. A few of the best public universities do not offer priority registration for honors students, for example, because these universities believe in the high quality of their student bodies as a whole and think that cohesion and mutual respect are more important to their mission than perquisites for the few.

On the other hand, students themselves value the benefits, especially if their university is extremely large and bureaucratic, or the campus is far-flung, or they have a keen interest in foreign study, or simply prefer more peace and quiet than most college students. A significant number of student comments suggest that priority registration is the main reason that the students participate in some honors programs. This is not typical, but even when “perks” are not primary, they are appealing to most honors students.

The universities among our fifty who scored the highest in the combined metric for honors housing, study abroad, and priority registration are listed below. (Please note that the score for the combined metric does not mean that all of the universities listed below have priority registration for honors students, though almost all of them do.) This list was revised on April 4, 2012.

1. Arizona, Delaware, Vermont

4. Ohio State

5. Georgia, Kansas, Texas

8. Michigan State

9. Arizona State, Mississippi

11. Texas A&M

12. Virginia

13. Penn State

14. Illinois, Minnesota, UCLA

Close behind are Indiana, Iowa, South Carolina, and Washington State.