Honors College – Yes or No?

Published by Wendy Nelson on

ScaleAn email conversation I had with a parent this week got me thinking about making the decision to choose an honors college or not.    The smart kid’s college choice will often involve deciding between a university with an honors college or a college/university that is very competitive overall.  By competitive, I mean tougher admissions standards – students who are accepted are at the top end of the ACT/SAT scale and have top high school GPAs.

My oldest daughter is in an honors college and it has its pros and cons.  Let’s look at some of these.

The Pros of an Honors College or Honors Program

  1. Strong liberal arts base with focus on writing and critical thinking –  I recently read another article affirming that employers are looking for college grads who can communicate orally, work in teams, communicate well in writing, use good judgement, and have critical thinking skills.  I can definitely say that my daughter’s honors college, along with most others I have looked into, will provide this base.
  2. Smaller community of like-minded students – This is especially true at very large public universities.  The honors college offers a feel of small school within a big school and makes it easier for students to fit within a like-minded group.
  3. Smaller classes – Classes inside the honors college tend to be smaller and more intimate than many other college classes.  They are often taught in more of a round-table type discussion style and less of a lecture style.
  4. Great networking opportunities – Honors colleges tend to have very strong and active alumni networks that are committed to helping new graduates find opportunities.  This can also be the case for internship opportunities during college.
  5. Graduate school admissions – Most honors colleges have a large number of graduates going directly to graduate school.  The honors college programs tend to provide a higher degree of support for the student looking to apply to graduate schools and being an honors college graduate can help with competitive graduate school admissions.
  6. Potential lower cost – If you are weighing an honors college at a public university against a private liberal arts college, there is a good chance that you will have substantial savings by going the honors college route.  It offers the opportunity for more of a liberal arts type education at a much lower tuition cost than the nation’s top liberal arts colleges.

The Cons of an Honors College or Honors Program

  1. Classes outside of the honors college – The honors college only covers a portion of the student’s course load.  The student still needs to take classes with the general population.  High performing students can get easily frustrated, especially with more entry-level courses, that are designed for all students.  This is especially true at large public universities.
  2. “Entitled” students – There’s no easy way to say this.  It is not uncommon to find students in the honors college who think they are “extra special” because they are smart and are in the honors college.    Students like this tend to want to carry around an “I’m smart” badge and use that to their advantage, even though they often don’t contribute anything meaningful or profound.  Hopefully these students are the minority of the honors college population and not the majority.  This can make it a tough atmosphere for students who really want to learn and contribute in a more meaningful and mature way.
  3. Workload – Although an intense workload can be a positive, the student who wants to participate in a lot of different things may struggle to fit it all in.  My daughter’s first year in her honors college involved writing weekly papers.  Students need to have good time management skills to balance things like athletics, jobs, and clubs with an honors college workload.
  4. A large school is still a large school – A school with more than 10,000 students will always seem larger than a small school.  While this may not be noticeable within the “walls” of an honors college, it will be noticeable in many other places like dining halls, dorms, athletic events, and more.  Some students just don’t like the large school atmosphere.

I don’t want to paint the picture that honors colleges are only associated with large public universities.  This is not the case.  My daughter’s honors college is within a medium-sized private university.  It is more common for private schools to offer “honors programs” than “honors colleges.”  The distinction is usually whether or not there are buildings solely dedicated to honors courses.  An honors college has its own building or buildings.  An honors program does not.

The decision to go the honors college route or not can have a great impact on your student’s college choice.  My suggestion is to visit both honors colleges and schools that are more competitive overall.  Then have your student make his or her own list of pros and cons.  When it came down to the final college choice, my oldest daughter had narrowed it to one school with an honors college and one small more competitive liberal arts college.  It was the curriculum of the honors college that tipped the scale for her.