8 Things You Should Know about Honors Colleges

on March 31, 2017

Attending honors colleges can provide an intimate and more rigorous learning experience. Class sizes typically are smaller than instruction that takes place in lecture halls.


Honors colleges also can offer priority registration for classes, special honors housing, more generous financial aid and an honors designation on college degrees.


With honors colleges growing in popularity on university campuses, here are eight things you need to know about honors colleges:


1. State Universities Embrace Honors Colleges


According to the National Collegiate Honors Council, there were less than two dozen honors colleges in the early 1990s. Today there are roughly 850 institutions with honors colleges and honors programs that belong to the NCHC, which the organization estimates make up roughly 75 percent of the nation’s honors offerings. Of those programs, at least 140 are honors colleges, according to Andrew Cognard-Black, who is the NCHC’s research director. He believes the total number of honors colleges now exceeds 180.


The NCHC estimates that about 5 to 6 percent of students at member institutions participate in honors programs.


Interest in honors colleges has grown at state universities as families look for relative bargains compared to the higher price of the most popular private universities that now routinely cost more than $60,000 a year. Public universities typically are less expensive than private colleges, yet honors colleges can provide an experience that can resemble that of a private liberal arts college.


Students also view honors colleges as a way to secure a competitive academic edge as they consider opportunities beyond their bachelor’s degree.


2. Honors Colleges Offer Priority Registration


In addition to personalized educational experiences, a popular perk that honors colleges often provide is allowing honors students to register before most of a university’s student body.


Cutting to the front of the line can save families considerable amounts of money by allowing students to graduate on time or even earlier. This is no small benefit considering that only about a third of students attending public institutions graduate in the traditional eight semesters.


With easier access to classes, enrollment in an honors college can also boost a student’s chances of being able to double major.


3. Selectivity Varies


The type of students who attend honors colleges significantly differs. The requirements can be an indicator of the caliber of students in an honors college. You also will want to pay close attention to these admission requirements if you are worried about not qualifying. You will often find the admission requirements on a university’s website.


4. Understand Honors Program vs. Honors College


Some universities offer honors programs and some have honors colleges.


Here’s what sets an honors college apart from an honors program: Honors colleges typically enjoy full-time faculty and a dean who oversees the academic enterprise. This structure allows them to have a seat at the table in a university’s decision making. Honors colleges also have a foundation to help support them with an endowment.


Cognard-Black said there is no real indication that honors colleges are inherently better than honors programs.


“I've done some research on the differences and the data I've seen show that there are more similarities than differences in curricular features,” Cognard-Black says. “There are some differences such as larger dedicated staffs and being able to offer study abroad options or internships specifically for honors students, but I think those differences are often a function of larger size that is usually implied by having an honors college, which are larger, on average, than programs.”


5. Ask Questions


Because the quality and offerings of honors programs and honors colleges can vary significantly, make sure you know what you’re getting.


Here are questions to ask an honors college administrator:


  • How is the academic experience at your institution enhanced for honors students?
  • Will honors students write a senior thesis or conduct some type of capstone project? 
  • What is the academic workload like?
  • What percentage of course work will be in the honors program?
  • Are undergraduate research opportunities available?
  • Will being in an honors program hurt my grade point average?
  • What GPA does it take to stay in the program?
  • What is the honors program retention rate?
  • What is the honors program graduation rate?
  • What are the academic requirements to qualify for the program?
  • Are honors students provided with academic advisors?
  • What are the internship and networking opportunities available for honors students?
  • What are the study abroad options?
  • Are there special scholarships available for honor students?
  • Do honors students live in separate dorms?


You’ll also want to talk to current honors students (preferably upper classmen) and recent graduates. Here are questions to ask:


  • Did the program’s promises pan out?
  • How would you characterize the academic experience and workload?
  • Did the honors college give you an advantage in alumni networking?
  • Did you feel your experience in the honors college gave you a boost when looking for a job or applying to graduate or professional schools?
  • Did you feel in any way isolated from the main campus?
  • How did you feel about the honors professors? Are they more demanding than those in regular classes?


6. Apply Again


If you don’t qualify for honors admission, see if you can try again.  Some honors colleges and programs will give currently students a second chance.


7. Some Institutions Offer Honors Curriculums to All


Entire institutions exist that classify themselves as honors colleges. St. Mary’s College of Maryland, which is a public liberal arts college, provides an honors curriculum to all students. More than two-thirds of the students either double major or minor in a second academic discipline.


The entire campus of the New College of Florida also is an honors institution. At the New College, students don’t receive grades. They receive written critiques from professors. Students agree to contracts with their academic advisor about what they promise to do during the semester. Every senior must write a lengthy thesis and defend it before a committee of at least three professors.


Although it’s within a larger university, the honors college at the Wilkes Honors College at the Florida Atlantic University is 45 miles from the main campus.  It has an entirely separate curriculum that emphasizes rigor and interdisciplinary learning.  About 65 percent of the alumni from the honors college have gone on to graduate school.


Some honors programs can be fairly distinct from the rest of the campus. For instance, Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University offers separate courses, dining halls and housing.


8. Look for Honors Colleges


The National Collegiate Honors Council is a membership site (a student membership is $35), but anyone can visit the site to see its directory — organized by state — of all its member institutions.


There are almost 200 two-year institutions that also offer honors programs. Many of them have articulation or other transfer agreements that ease the process of being admitted into honors programs at baccalaureate–degree institutions.  


You also will find a list of honors colleges on Wikipedia.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on Amazon.com.

Can I get Into...

We Know Your Chances. Do You?

What Are My Chances