Best Honors Colleges And Honors Programs

Are you torn between the intimate atmosphere of a small liberal arts college and the bustling energy of a large university campus? Do you crave the academic rigor of a prestigious institution coupled with the vibrant community of a big sports scene? If so, you might find your perfect fit in an honors college.

While honors programs have been around in various forms since the post-war era, the concept of the honors college has gained momentum in recent decades. Initially aimed at attracting top-tier students to public universities, honors colleges have proliferated since the 1990s. Today, it’s rare to find a major public university that doesn’t boast some form of honors distinction. However, with so many programs popping up, it can be challenging to determine which honors experience offers the quality and value you seek.

Fear not—we’re here to guide you through the essential factors to consider when exploring honors colleges and programs. Whether you’re weighing your options or ready to dive in, here’s what you need to know:

Will I get accepted to an honors college?

Are you wondering if you have what it takes to gain acceptance into an honors college? The admissions process can vary widely, from strict academic criteria to a more holistic evaluation of your potential.

Consider these examples: Michigan State University Honors College sets clear benchmarks—an average SAT score of 1410 and a top 5% high school class ranking. Similarly, the University of Pittsburgh’s Honors College looks for students with SAT scores ranging from 1450 to 1500 and a 3.8 GPA. On the other hand, the Honors College at the University of Missouri requires a minimum SAT of 1310 or a GPA of at least 3.75.

But then there’s Clark Honors College at The University of Oregon, which takes a different approach. Here, academic metrics take a backseat to qualities like creativity and community contributions. The admissions process is more holistic, with no minimum requirements.

These examples highlight the diverse approaches to honors admissions, ranging from strict criteria to more nuanced evaluations. As you explore your options, remember to consider not only your academic achievements but also your unique strengths and contributions. With a clear understanding of the admissions landscape, you can confidently pursue your goals of joining an honors college that aligns with your aspirations and values.

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What is the difference between an honors college and honors program?

Honors colleges and programs offer unique opportunities for students seeking a more enriched academic experience. However, understanding the distinction between the two can be tricky. Let’s break it down:

  1. Honors Colleges: These can be integral parts of larger universities or standalone entities. Examples include Schreyer Honors College at Penn State and Barrett Honors College at Arizona State. Honors colleges typically offer comprehensive academic programs with specialized coursework, research opportunities, and a supportive community of high-achieving students.
  2. Honors Programs: In some cases, institutions may offer honors programs as alternatives to full-fledged colleges. These programs may have a narrower focus or fewer resources compared to honors colleges. For instance, St. Mary’s in Maryland and New College of Florida operate as independent honors colleges. However, the distinction isn’t always clear-cut, as some schools use the terms “college” and “program” interchangeably.

To truly assess the quality and depth of an honors experience, it’s essential to look beyond labels and delve into each institution’s offerings. Consider factors such as specialized coursework, faculty engagement, research opportunities, and the overall community atmosphere. By doing your homework and exploring the nuances of each program, you can find the best fit for your academic and personal goals.

Class Sizes and Course Offerings in Honors Colleges

When considering an honors college, one key aspect to examine is the class size and the number of honors courses available. Ideally, an honors college will offer a diverse range of honors-only courses with small class sizes akin to those found at elite liberal arts schools—typically around 15-20 students per class. However, the reality can vary significantly from one institution to another.

Take The University of Mississippi’s Barksdale Honors College, for example. Despite its large size, boasting over 1,000 honors students, it offers an impressive selection of over 70 honors courses with class sizes typically ranging from 15 to 20 students. Moreover, a closer look at Barksdale’s course offerings reveals a plethora of sections for each course, ensuring ample opportunities for student engagement. For instance, there are up to 30 sections of the freshman honors seminar scheduled for the spring of 2024.

Similarly, universities like Arizona State, Indiana, Penn State, and Temple provide a rich variety of honors courses with class sizes under 20 students, offering students an intimate and engaging learning environment. However, it’s important to note that some programs may have only a limited selection of honors courses with smaller class sizes, supplemented by larger lectures in auditoriums.

To ensure you’re making an informed decision, don’t hesitate to reach out to your prospective college for a comprehensive list of honors courses, especially if this information isn’t readily available online. By carefully considering class sizes and course offerings, you can find an honors college that aligns with your academic preferences and goals.

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Exploring the Honors Experience Beyond the Classroom

For serious students, the benefits of being surrounded by academically-driven peers extend far beyond the lecture hall. Sharing a living space with fellow honors students offers unique opportunities for collaboration, intellectual exchange, and a supportive academic community. To fully embrace the honors experience, it’s essential to consider the availability of special honors living arrangements at your prospective college and understand the options and policies in place.

At The University of South Carolina, freshmen are encouraged to reside in the honors-only residence, complete with three lecture halls conveniently integrated into the building. Boston University takes it a step further by requiring members of its Kilachand Honors College to live in a designated honors dorm during their freshman year. Meanwhile, Drexel University offers optional separate housing for honors students, featuring special guest lectures and faculty dinners for a rich academic experience.

Pitt honors students enjoy living together in one designated dorm, Sutherland West, with the option to choose different housing arrangements in subsequent years. On the other hand, schools like Michigan State provide honors floors in several residence halls across campus, fostering a distributed honors community rather than centralizing it in one building.

By understanding the various options for honors housing and considering how they align with your preferences and priorities, you can make an informed decision about the college experience that best suits your academic and social needs.

Comparing Costs: State Schools vs. Private Colleges

It’s no secret that state schools typically come with a significantly lower sticker price compared to private colleges. Let’s put it into perspective with a real-life example: Imagine a Pennsylvania resident weighing their options between Bucknell University, a prestigious private institution, and the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State. Here’s how the financials stack up:

  • Bucknell (room/board/meals/fees): $74,676 x 4 years = $298,704
  • Penn State Honors (room/board/meals/fees): $32,608 x 4 years = $90,432

That’s a staggering difference of $208,272.

However, the cost comparison doesn’t end there. Many honors students also qualify for substantial merit aid from their university, making honors programs an even greater value proposition. For instance, students admitted to the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State automatically qualify for an Academic Excellence Scholarship valued at $5,000 per semester (included in the calculation above). Similarly, students at Arizona State’s Barrett Honors College have access to scholarships ranging from $1,000 to as much as $15,000 per year.

When considering the financial aspects of your college decision, it’s essential to factor in not only the sticker price but also the potential for merit aid and scholarships. Honors programs, with their combination of academic rigor and financial incentives, can offer an exceptional value for students seeking a top-notch education without breaking the bank.


the decision between a state school and a private college is not merely about the prestige of the institution—it’s also about the financial investment and the value proposition it offers. While private colleges often come with hefty price tags, state schools, especially those with honors programs, can provide a high-quality education at a fraction of the cost.

As illustrated by our comparison between Bucknell University and the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State, the potential savings over four years can be substantial. Additionally, honors programs often provide access to merit aid and scholarships, further reducing the financial burden on students and their families.

Ultimately, when weighing your options, consider not only the sticker price but also the overall value, including academic opportunities, support services, and potential financial aid. By making an informed decision based on both academic and financial considerations, you can set yourself up for success and pave the way for a bright future.