Honors Programmes and Colleges at US Universities

Posted on 27th June 2023

When researching US colleges and compiling a college list, one factor you may not have thought to consider is honors programmes. These are alternative or supplemental education programmes at a specific college that can be completed as part of the undergraduate degree. Honors may be offered as a programme or academic pathway within a university, giving students the opportunity for a more rigorous education, or to access special courses or activities. Alternatively, a university might contain a separate honors college that has its own distinct facilities and identity. Both types of honors will allow students to have an enriched academic experience and gain an honors distinction on their degree.

Many students begin the college selection process wanting to attend a top or highly selective university. But honors programmes allow students to access a rigorous and distinguished educational experience at an institution that might not be a household name. Highly selective universities reject most applicants, so by considering honors programmes at universities with higher acceptance rates, you can increase your odds of getting offers and meet your criteria for an excellent education.

Honors colleges and programmes can benefit students in several ways. First, an honors college can provide students with a smaller community within a larger university, easing their transition from high school to university. Students in honors colleges and honors programmes often have smaller classes and give students the opportunity to work closely with professors, which provides them with a liberal arts college experience within the context of a larger university. So, an honors college could be a good fit for a student who attended a small boarding school and enjoyed that close community, but wants to broaden their horizons at university: it could ease the transition from a smaller to larger environment and give them the best of both worlds.

Another benefit of honors colleges and programmes is that they set students up for successful futures. They are excellent preparation for competitive graduate programmes, jobs, and scholarships. For example, the average five-year net return on an education at Rutgers Honors College is $275,000 (around £215,000)!

For some honors programmes and colleges, all applicants to the main university are considered for admission without submitting a separate application. However, others, like the renowned Barrett College at Arizona State University, have a separate application from ASU’s main application, along with extra requirements and an earlier application deadline.

There are many outstanding honors programmes and colleges in the US. One such programme at the University of Virginia is the Echols Scholars programme, an honors programme within the College of Arts and Sciences. All UVA applicants are considered for admission to the programme. Echols Scholars are exempt from the university’s general educational requirements; can complete an interdisciplinary major with a chosen faculty advisor; can access a peer mentorship programme; and have a dedicated, optional residence hall where they can live with other honors scholars. The percentage of international students in the Echols programme is higher than in the university overall.

Another outstanding honors program is the Glynn Family Honors Program at Notre Dame. The program offers participants the opportunity to access special advising, research, and career mentoring. Students complete the University’s required courses in small seminars—a valuable opportunity for students who learn best in this context. Research is also at the heart of the program: students take a sequence of research courses, undertake research either within or outside their major, and finish with a senior thesis. This is excellent preparation for graduate school, where research is the major component of the academic experience. Once students are admitted to Notre Dame, selected students will be invited to apply to the honors program; around 100 are admitted per year.

The Plan II Honors Program at University of Texas at Austin is a small honors programme within the university. It provides its students with small, discussion-based courses and the ability to collaborate with faculty; additionally, each student in the programme has two academic advisors with walk-in advising hours. The support provided is not just academic: first-year students have Plan II peer mentors, and later years are provided with support with careers, faculty mentorship, and research. The Plan II students’ association hosts academic and social events, and there are Plan II student organisations. The programme also has its own scholarship and grant programmes, so students can apply for financial aid from the Plan II programme that can be used for university fees, studying abroad, and/or research.

Barrett College is a distinct honors college at Arizona State University that functions like a small college within a large research university. Barrett College students follow an honors curriculum and live in a residential community with dedicated faculty; they can also access special internships, research, and travel opportunities. Within Barrett College, the most common majors (courses) are STEM subjects and business.

Like Barrett College, Rutgers University Honors College is separate from the honors program at the university. The programme operates within the individual schools at Rutgers (Arts and Sciences, Engineering, and Environmental and Biological Sciences), but the Honors College connects students across the schools, facilitating collaboration and interdisciplinarity. Whilst students in the school-based honors programs and the Honors College have different required classes and extracurricular activities, there is overlap in some of the honors coursework, and opportunities for both groups to collaborate academically.

Rutgers Honors College students have access to faculty collaboration, tutoring, dedicated extra- and co-curricular programs, honors housing, internships and research opportunities. They can also avail themselves of specific funding for study abroad, and exclusive registration for honors classes and honors sections of classes. The Honors College has a mission course, the Forum, that focuses on social impact and collaboration. This emphasis on collaboration is reflected in the requirement for all first-year students to live in the Honors College residential community, in order to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration amongst high-achieving students. 

When researching US universities, it’s important to consider honors programmes and colleges, especially if the academic experience at university is your main consideration when making your college list. If you’d like support with researching honors colleges and programmes, or general help with your questions about the US application process, you can set up a free call with a UES Education founder here.

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