Honors Colleges

Some large state universities have an “Honors College” or “Honors Program” where you can get a little extra attention, challenge and prestige

University of Oregon
University of Oregon

Big state universities have a number of advantages.  You can major in in almost any subject.  Everybody has heard of them.  The cost is moderate for in-state residents.  Most are not too hard to get into.  However, a lot of the instruction at these places is in large lecture halls where there isn’t much opportunity for individualized attention or discussing ideas. The instructor may never even learn your name. Your work may be graded by untrained and underpaid graduate students, and the standards they set for you can be pretty low.

Some state universities have an “honors college” or honor’s program where you can get a little extra attention, challenge and prestige.  By entering your university’s honors college you get access to small challenging classes lead by professors who will get to know you personally; the sort of classes small liberal arts colleges excel at.  Your fellow students in these classes will probably be more interested in ideas than most.  And of course graduating from the honors college makes you look good to the outside world.

Part of the reason Ivy League universities and other elite colleges have become so much more difficult to get into in recent decades is that they haven’t grown much in size, even while the population of young adults who aspire to an elite bachelor’s degree has grown exponentially, both in the United States and abroad.  By creating honors colleges and honors programs, public universities have in effect increased the number of elite spots available to applicants.  We can debate the extent to which this is good for the universities who create them or good for society as a whole – because shouldn’t all college instruction be rigorous and personalized? – But clearly it’s a good deal for the student who enrolls in an honors college.  In his New York Times article “A Prudent College Path”, Frank Bruni writes about a young man who was accepted to all eight Ivy League colleges but chose to go the University of Alabama’s honor’s college instead.  Part of the reason was money – he got a scholarship.  But part of it was that he didn’t have to leave the South or forgo the socioeconomic diversity of a state university.  Ivy League universities are islands of wealth and privilege, and not everybody wants that experience.

You have to apply to most honors colleges and honors programs before you attend the university; there’s usually a separate application process.  Here are some examples:

Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College https://barretthonors.asu.edu/
The University of Oregon’s Robert D. Clark Honors College https://honors.uoregon.edu/
The Schreyer Honors College at the Pennsylvania State University https://www.shc.psu.edu/
The South Carolina Honors College at the University of South Carolina http://schc.sc.edu/
The Honors College at the University of South Florida http://honors.usf.edu/
The California Polytechnic State University at Pomona’s Kellogg Honors College http://www.cpp.edu/~honorscollege/

The other way to get this kind of personalized attention and quality education at a large state university is to choose a major in a small department.  Even the largest universities have small departments that only graduate a few students per year.  Those students have a very different college experience than the ones in programs with hundreds of other students.  Examples of departments with just a few students in them include linguistics, classics, and physics.  At most colleges, departments with hundreds of students would include English, economics, and biology.


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