Honors Colleges, a US system you should know more about

Guides / USA

Families approaching US admissions from a European perspective (where in most cases cost of attendance is not a factor in choosing between universities) can often get themselves in a pickle when looking at where to apply. If the system you are used to means that students with the highest grades will go to the most selective universities, then why would you consider somewhere that’s not ‘top’?

What this view misses is that the US system works differently, and that ‘top’ is defined in other ways. ‘Top’ could mean highest ranked, but it could also mean ‘most selective’ or even ‘most well regarded’.

It is here where honors colleges can be a great option for students. So, what is an honors college?

For all sorts of reasons, students from a particular US state may wish to go to their state’s ‘flagship’ public university for their university education. It may be cheaper, they may have personal reasons for not wanting to travel too far, it may be the best fit for them. These public flagship universities are sometimes huge: The Ohio State University for example has almost three times as many undergraduate students as the entire Ivy League has.

These students may be stellar students in many ways, particularly academically: they have the numbers to go to the hyper-selective universities but choose not to. Instead, they may enter the honors college of their public flagship university.

Honors colleges therefore work a bit like ‘top sets’ or ‘grammar streams’ in the UK context: a special subset of an institution with higher academic requirements, special opportunities and potentially some extra funding. Purely on the numbers, these universities can also be more selective than places like Harvard or Stanford because, unlike those universities, there are no legacy or sports admissions impacting the process. For example, Columbia last year had a middle 50% SAT range of 1450-1560, while the University of Georgia Honors College was 1500-1540.

So what’s it like attending an honors college, and how do I know which ones are good?

Well, this article from US News & World Report breaks down some of the data and the opportunities which (even for international students) will be significantly cheaper than the cost of the more well-known private universities:

Then, for a more detailed insight, here’s how Honors works at the top-ranked University of Florida:

So, some great options out there that students might not be aware of. And remember, though 75% of US universities are private, only 25% of all undergraduates are at them. The other 75%? Well, they are at public universities, offering a great value education with niche programs that can fit every type of student.