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Countdown to college: Honor colleges are states' best-kept secret

Lee Shulman Bierer, Tribune News Service on

Published in Education News

The saying goes, “It's easier to make a big school smaller than it is to make a small school bigger.”

High school seniors often find themselves deciding between a small private college and a larger university. One way to make a big school smaller is an honors program.

Fans say that an honors program offers an Ivy League education at state school prices. Honors colleges are states' smartest tool for attracting and retaining their best and brightest at their home institutions. It's no surprise that honors programs have exploded and can now be found on more than 1,400 campuses nationwide. Honors programs and large public institutions are reaching out and offering substantial inducements to encourage their state’s strongest students to stay in-state.

Students qualify for honors programs typically based in large part on three factors:

* Rigor of the high school curriculum

* Performance in high school classes

* Standardized test scores

A number of states across the country offer in-state tuition to out-of-state applicants if they meet basic criteria. The University of South Carolina boasts an out-of-state enrollment of 43 percent. The difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition and savings at the University of South Carolina would save a family roughly $25,000 per year, or $100,000 over the course of a four-year education. That’s worth looking into.

To be competitive with private colleges and universities, public institutions try to appeal to the highest-performing students with perks that capitalize on the theme of making the students feel that they are “bigger fish in a smaller pond.”

The best perks of honors programs are student-focused. Colleges design their own programs and offer a combination of the following:

* Priority class registration


* Honors classes and seminars just for honors students or smaller classes with limited enrollments

* Honors housing with more amenities and often more convenient and desirable locations

* Specialized programming with guest speakers and meet-and-greet opportunities with visitors to the university

* Living and learning communities that combine academic interests and housing

* Team-building and leadership programs

* Enhanced career guidance services

* Greater access to undergraduate research opportunities

* Greater access and scholarship dollars toward study abroad opportunities

* Guaranteed admission to highly selective majors and programs

John Willingham has literally written the book on honors colleges, "Inside Honors: Ratings and Reviews of Sixty Public University Honors Programs" (Public University Press; www.publicuniversityhonors.com), where he shares his methodical research results. His research has demonstrated that one can find equally excellent value in the growing number of honors colleges in non-flagship institutions. But to find that value, you have to look deeply into what Willingham calls the “ground game” of honors colleges and programs.

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