What Is an Honors College?

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  • Many universities house honors colleges, which offer an enriched, accelerated curriculum.
  • High-achieving students can apply to honors colleges as freshmen or upperclassmen.
  • Admission is highly selective, leading to smaller classes and unique academic opportunities.

These days, many higher education institutions offer honors colleges — intensified programs designed to challenge top students. Honors college students may choose any available major or minor and must take a rigorous curriculum that includes accelerated and enriched general education courses, as well as an honors thesis requirement.

Honors colleges offer high-achieving students at large public universities the same intensive learning environment fostered at small liberal arts colleges. While an honors college can tack on up to $1,000 per term in tuition, the total cost is still far below that of elite liberal arts schools.

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“More and more public schools are … promoting honors programs, and particularly honors colleges, that give students some of the virtues and perks of private schools without some of the drawbacks.” Source: — Frank Bruni, New York Times Columnist Link:More Info

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Honors colleges recreate the private liberal arts experience at a state school price. Admission to an honors college is typically much more competitive than it is to the larger school. Most honors colleges require high GPAs and strong test scores. Rather than sitting in a lecture hall alongside 500 fellow undergrads, honors students can look forward to small round-table discussions.

Another boon of attending an honors college is the ability to interact with a more socioeconomically diverse cohort. Compared to elite institutions, honors colleges welcome more students from a greater range of income backgrounds.

Additionally, honors colleges offer students special opportunities to perform research and interact with faculty members.

Honors Colleges vs. Honors Programs

Some universities, both large and small, offer multiple honors programs that are all housed within an honors college. Whereas the honors college may provide special housing or academic buildings, each honors program offers distinct curricula for their business, engineering, and liberal arts majors.

The administrative differences between an honors college and an honors program sometimes change the type of diploma received. At universities that offer only an honors program and no honors college, honors students complete their degree within their major's college rather than through a separate honors college.

Honors colleges first appeared after World War II, when the surge of highly qualified students exceeded the capacities of selective private universities. Now, with more Americans enrolled in college than ever before, many elite schools are striving to keep admission rates as low as possible.

What Attending an Honors College Means for Your Resume

Graduating from an honors college means getting to wear special regalia on commencement day, receive a special diploma, and add an impressive distinction to your resume's education section.

Graduates may list the name of their honors college next to their home institution. Many honors colleges are highly prestigious, such as Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University and Schreyer Honors College at Penn State.

Your coursework, grades, and extracurriculars will still be important for a successful school or job application, but attending an honors college is meaningful to both other colleges and future employers because it emphasizes your skills and commitment to learning.

List of Popular Honors Colleges

  • Barrett Honors College (Arizona State University)
  • Clemson University Honors College (formerly Calhoun Honors College)
  • Commonwealth Honors College (University of Massachusetts Amherst)
  • Florida International University Honors College
  • Hutton Honors College (Indiana University Bloomington)
  • James Madison University Honors College
  • Judy Genshaft Honors College (University of South Florida)
  • Macaulay Honors College (City University of New York)
  • Purdue Honors College (Purdue University)
  • Rutgers Honors College (Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey)
  • Schreyer Honors College (Penn State)
  • University of Alabama Honors College
  • University of Illinois at Chicago Honors College
  • University of Maryland, College Park, Honors College

How to Get Into an Honors College

Many students never hear of honors college until they arrive on campus. During the college application process, it's easy to ignore the small box that needs to be checked for consideration for the honors college, or avoid the extra essay-writing that's often required.

Fortunately, most institutions allow students to apply for honors college admission at just about any point in their college career. Students may be invited to apply for the honors college during the normal application process or at the end of their first year. Typically, colleges maintain different application requirements for new and existing students.

For all students, honors college admission is highly selective. Students must possess high grades (usually a 3.75 GPA or above), impressive SAT/ACT scores, and a developed sense of why they would benefit from an honors program.

Is Honors College Worth It?

Honors colleges extend the elite liberal arts experience to more worthy students. But the uptick in course quality, classroom discussion, and special opportunities also means a much more rigorous college experience.

In addition to taking harder classes with a supplemental or alternative curriculum, honors students are expected to contribute to deep discussions in small class settings. They have high expectations to live up to, and a lot of work to do.

“[T]he honors college brought [students] together in a communal experience with the staff, faculty, and other students, enriching their educational and professional growth.” Source: — James H. Young III, Lachel Story, Samantha Tarver, et al., “The Honors College Experience Reconsidered” Link:More Info

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Honors students must also generally produce an honors thesis to graduate. The crowning achievement of most honors college programs, an honors thesis runs 30-40 pages and aims to synthesize four years of study.

Universities make heavier demands of honors students and charge them more per credit hour. That said, honors college students are eligible for special scholarships to cover the higher costs. At some institutions, honors students receive special perks for their extra payments, like priority registration and separate housing communities.

The greatest benefit of attending an honors college is arguably the sense of community and opportunity it fosters. Inclusion and optimism are critical for meeting education goals. Honors students currently boast higher graduation rates than the national average, indicating that the honors college experience is often worth the price and effort.

Feature Image: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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