The Benefit of Honors Colleges and Honors Programs

Academically talented and ambitious high school students are flocking to honors colleges and honors programs at large universities as their top choice for college. Not surprisingly, many public and private universities have honors colleges and honors programs for this very reason—to attract and retain exceptional students who might otherwise choose a more institutionally prestigious, and highly selective, university or liberal arts college. To help students understand if one of these honors options is right for them, here is an overview of honors colleges and honors programs.

Honors Colleges vs. Honors Programs

An honors college is a distinct entity within a university. Modeled on liberal arts colleges, honors colleges typically offer smaller classes that are taught by senior faculty and provide undergraduates with enhanced research opportunities. As a separate entity within the university, honors colleges often have their own dean and budget. Honors colleges usually include living learning communities and sometimes offer students priority registrations.

The Robert D. Clark Honors College, established at the University of Oregon in 1960, is the oldest honors college in the U.S. Students there satisfy their general education requirements in the honors college, but are affiliated with university departments for their major and must complete a senior thesis in their major as part of their honors college requirements.

In the 1990s, many universities followed Oregon’s example, establishing honors colleges. Today there are over 125 public universities with honors colleges, with over 60% of them established since 1994.

An honors program is similar to an honors college in offering small classes that are taught by senior faculty. However, they are not distinct entities within a university, but rather typically exist within a department or discipline (such as an engineering honors academy). Honors programs may also include living learning communities, special research opportunities and priority registration.

The first honors programs, at Swarthmore College and the University of Texas at Austin (Plan II), date back to before World War II.

Like honors colleges, honors programs have proliferated since the mid-1990s.

Honors colleges are more common at large, public universities while honors programs are more often found at smaller colleges. And some, like the University of Maryland, have both an honors college and honors programs.

Applying to an honors college or program

The application process for honors colleges and honors programs varies among universities.

Some automatically consider students for its honors college or program and do not require an application or additional essays (Rutgers University, University of Vermont); others require a separate application, usually with essays, for the honors college or program (University of South Carolina, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill). Students must know deadlines and application requirements for each university’s honors college or honors program they are considering.

When reviewing applicants for admission into an honors college or honors program, the admissions office is evaluating an applicant’s academic record, extracurricular engagement and leadership and character.

Is an honors college or honors program a good fit?

According to US News, honors colleges and honors programs are as much about recruiting students as they are about the educational experience they offer. Students need to research the ins and outs of the honors options and understand their pluses and minuses. Here are some things to consider:

  • How rigorous are the honors classes?
  • How big are the honors classes?
  • Who teaches the honors classes?
  • What is the mix of honors and non-honors classes students take over the course of their four years of study?
  • Is there a thesis or capstone requirement?
  • What kind of mentoring and advising is offered?
  • Does the honors college or program have a residential component?
  • Does the honors college or program give students priority registration?
  • Does the honors college or program have an entry point for students during their first or second year?
  • Are honors students well integrated into the campus life and welcomed in clubs and organizations?
  • Does the honors college or program provide merit aid? For more information about some scholarships offered by honors colleges and honors programs, check out this article from Unigo.com.


For a list of honors programs, take a look at this list compiled by College Kickstart.