Why Public University Honors Programs are Shaking Up the Selective College World (and Why You Should Pay Attention)

Your student is bright. They’ve got the grades. They’ve got the scores. You’re pretty sure they’ll be a shoo in for some of the most highly-selective liberal arts colleges in the country. What you aren’t so sure about is just how you’ll foot the bill if your child doesn’t score a big merit award. You might also be worried that they won’t be happy in a small school that doesn’t boast the allure of a fall Saturday appearance on ESPN Game Day. 

Whether you’re a parent trying to help your high-achieving child find the college of their dreams, or a counselor helping your top performing students navigate the competitive landscape of selective college admissions, there’s an option that’s been flying under the radar that you should know about: public university honors colleges and programs.

“There are many benefits of honors colleges within a larger public research university, such as small classes, additional advising and living/learning communities,” says Hannah LeGris, Singletary Scholars Coordinator at the University of Kentucky Lewis Honors College. “For the price of a state university, students receive value that is far higher measured in community, extra opportunities with scholarship, study abroad, and a wide range of coursework from a liberal arts curriculum to pre-professional study.” 

While honors colleges and programs aren’t a new phenomena, they are seeing a boost in interest as families become more cost-conscious and students become more interested in looking beyond the Ivy League. The rise of honors programs at public universities began post-WWII as the demand for higher education increased and private institutions could not take on the increased numbers of highly-qualified applicants. Since that time, programs have become increasingly more competitive, yet also more diverse. According to a survey conducted by the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC), 29% of students in honors programs are first-generation. Results of this survey also show a median ACT of 29 and high school GPA of 3.83 for those enrolling in these programs.

Though it’s true that academic preparation is a primary factor in success in an honors program, there are many qualities that make a prospective student a good candidate.

“Honors programs and colleges are looking for some of the most well-rounded students,” says Ujash Patel, Assistant Director of Admission for the University of Kansas Honors . “Students that would really excel in an honors experience in higher education are individuals that are looking to be challenged inside and outside the classroom. An honors student wants to take their education a step further - which often involves participating in research, internships, study abroad and active classroom discussion.” 

Kathy Winters, Assistant Director for Scholar Recruitment at the University of Cincinnati agrees that honors applicants must have an interest in experiencing academia both inside and outside classroom walls, and a desire to be surrounded by engaged peers.

“In our experience-based program at the University of Cincinnati, students are challenged through Honors seminars and experiential-learning projects that focus on community engagement, creativity, global studies, leadership, and research,” says Winters. “Being in an honors program enables students to seek the challenges they crave and interact with like-minded individuals as they pursue--and discover--their personal passions.”

Two major differentiators between most public and private universities are the freshman retention and 4-year graduation rates. Based on the NCHC survey of member institutions, honors colleges and programs actually boast an 84% average retention rate and a 72% 4-year graduation rate. While these statistics are impressive compared to the overall rates for most public institutions, it’s important for students looking at public honors colleges and programs to be cognizant of the fact that the work load - and accompanying stress that brings with it - does not change regardless of the “private” or “public” label.

“An overwhelming majority of honors students have a history of great success throughout their time in the K-12 education system. The biggest challenge that many honors students have comes from within themselves,” says Patel. “The immense pressure honors students place on themselves does have a significant impact on their physical and mental well-being. I wish incoming honors students knew that they will not be great at everything and that is ok.”

The fact that applicants who would be a good fit for Honors are involved in so much in high school can be a challenge once they are managing their schedules on their own.

“Often Honors students commit to many activities across campus within student groups, work, athletics, and academics,” said LeGris. “For this reason, they often struggle to create balance when it comes to mental health, their time, and learning how to exercise self care or create calm spaces within their days. Honors students often need to learn how to ask for help and seek support.”

The moral of the story: while high-achieving students may have once overlooked options available at their state institutions based on the perception that the academic caliber wasn’t quite the same as their private institution peers, that time has changed. For those students whose social or financial “fit” may lie within a larger, state institution, but whose academic inclination leans more towards an intimate learning environment offering small classes and easier access to faculty, public university honors colleges and programs might be the option they’ve been seeking.