A Public Honors College May Be Right for You

There are public honors colleges in every state, most of which were established in the last 60 years. Prior to that time, honors colleges were altruistic efforts to foster academic excellence at state funded and operated institutions. Since then, honors colleges have continued to be established for this reason but their purpose has been enlarged. Now they also exist to remedy a competitive imbalance. They’re designed to  attract to state universities many of the high-achieving students who would otherwise attend top-tier private institutions. To prevent this brain drain, state university systems now devote considerable resources to their honors colleges. There are currently over 1,000 colleges in the United States with honors curricula. Collectively, they graduate more than 400,000 students annually.

If you’re seeking a superior undergraduate education at a top-tier school, we advise that you include at least one public honors college, ideally one located in your home state, to the list of colleges to which you apply. The quality of education at a public honors college is usually equal to that of an elite private institution — and it can be had for a public college price.

The Role of Honors Colleges in State Universities

A public honors college can be operated as a separate entity on its own campus or as part of a state university campus. Some students prefer the former, which comes with amenities usually reserved for students in private colleges such as excellent faculty, the best in campus amenities, ample financial resources, and elevated levels of privileges and access. Others consider the best-case scenario to be the latter so that they can enjoy all the benefits of a large university, including research opportunities, cultural facilities and events, competitive athletic teams, and a large and diverse student body while still benefiting from an intimate, rigorous, and individualized honors college experience.

Honors Colleges and Honors Programs

Although they’re similar and often both referred to as honors colleges, there are distinctions between honors colleges and honors programs. Instead of stand-alone honors colleges, many public universities offer a number of honors programs. Each honors program is for an academic discipline, e.g., liberal arts, business, natural sciences, health sciences, engineering, computer science, etc. Honors programs tend to be smaller and less formal than honors colleges. They may or may not have  separate academic buildings and residence halls for students in a program.

As an example of a state that offers both options, the University of Maryland has an Engineering Honors Program on its main campus in College Park and also offers the St. Mary’s Public Honors College in the town of St. Mary’s, which specializes in  Liberal Arts.

Applying to Honors Colleges and Programs

In applying to an honors college, students are required to submit a special state university application form. In some states, students may opt to submit a special supplement to the Common App. For example, applicants to the State University of New York (SUNY) Honors College in Geneseo can submit the Common App with a curricular résumé and a supplemental essay in response to a prompt. Alternatively, they may submit a SUNY Application with a Geneseo Supplement. Honors applicants require higher GPA’s and test scores for admission than those who apply admission  to other SUNY branches.

Application requirements and related policies regarding honors programs vary widely. Three of the most common practices are described below.

Invitation – A freshman, once they have accepted an offer of admission but before they matriculate at the state university, is invited to enter an honors program by the admissions office or an academic department,

Application – A freshman, in applying to the state university during senior year of high school, must submit a separate or supplemental application to be considered for admission to an honors program, and,

Post-Registration – A freshman matriculating at the state university in fall semester is invited to participate in an honors program beginning in spring semester of freshman year. 

Advantages of Honors Colleges and Programs

Attending an honors college or program confers most if not all of the following advantages on students and graduates:

  • Small classes that are taught by top faculty members,
  • More attention from faculty than regular students receive,
  • Certain merit scholarships available only to honors students,
  • Mentorship by faculty members including professors,
  • Professors invite students to participate in research programs that enhance their credentials for graduate school admission and careers,
  • Priority treatment in registration for all state university courses,
  • A separate residence hall with better resources, more privileges, and a shared sense of common purpose,
  • Dedicated academic buildings for classes and research,
  • Specialized interdisciplinary programs that integrate fields of study,
  • A superior study abroad program with more options,
  • Honors degrees are a strong credential in applying to graduate school,
  • Letters of recommendation from honors faculty have a strong impact on admission to graduate schools,
  • An honors degree often guarantees acceptance into associated graduate programs in the state university system,
  • A senior thesis or research project that is a positive factor in admission to graduate school, and,
  • Graduate school admissions counseling services and career guidance.

As with any type of college, you should examine honors colleges and programs carefully in order to determine how well they fit` your personal selection criteria. They differ significantly in size, quality, curricula, majors, housing, mission, financial aid, admission requirements, campus amenities, location, and other characteristics. Working through the maze of differences can be a daunting prospect, but it’s well worth the effort. An honors college is a sound choices for a high-achieving student.

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