Gifted education: The road to honors programs at the college level
Digby, J.
Parenting for High Potential
National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC)
September 2003

This article by Dr. Joan Digby, discusses honors programs in depth. The discussion is meant to give the reader a good idea of the benefits of belonging to an honors program. The author also talks about what to look for when choosing a college or university.

Every Saturday my campus bustles with parents delivering children to our very popular gifted program. I see them crossing campus roads, hand in hand, the children straining under their backpacks, eager to pull away, take off on their own flights of imagination and get to the classes that are their weekend enrichments. When I read the catalogue of interactive classes--from astronomy to self-publishing--they remind me of the seminars that we offer college students in the Honors Program that I have directed for more than twenty-five years. Recently it has struck me that these gifted and talented children, deeply engaged in creative, experiential learning and full of intellectual energy, are already walking the path toward an honors program in college.

For parents of elementary and middle school children, college may seem a long way down the road, so I quite realize that this essay considers future choices rather than current ones. However, children in gifted programs today are already cultivating the very skills and learning habits that may make college honors programs a natural choice. And for that reason I believe it is a good idea for parents to start familiarizing themselves with college honors programs so that they can determine whether to encourage their children to stay on that path.

There are more than a thousand honors programs in American colleges and universities, and you can expect virtually all of them to welcome and encourage gifted students who apply for admission. Before writing this essay, I surveyed students from honors programs in colleges around the country to find out whether they believe that gifted education prepared them for honors. I also asked whether they found any similarities between gifted and honors learning environments. Almost a hundred students wrote to me. They were spontaneous, articulate, and eager to share memories from elementary and middle school days. Many were thrilled to recall teachers, projects, and intense immersion in experiential learning that made them ready for honors. Rebecca, of RIT, summed up fundamental similarities when she said, "the environment in both the gifted programs and honors courses... tries to foster creativity and deeper thinking." Keith, of Marshall University, described a factor that several other students also raised, that both gifted and honors programs "help... push students to exceed their expectations of themselves." Because gifted programs provide a norm of difficult challenges and critical thinking, students like Amber of Lipscomb University saw college honors as a natural progression from gifted programs, "in the sense that I am used to challenge... and [familiar with] designing my own independent study." College honors programs frequently emphasize individuated curricula and close mentoring by passionately involved teachers, which were both mentioned by students as what they remembered most about the gifted programs of their youth.

Another important similarity they identified was the sense of shared community. Victoria, from The University of South Florida, described "friendly rivalries" in her gifted programs "that make you work harder almost without realizing you are doing it...." Some students wrote about how the work ethic of gifted education improved social skills, gave young students a sense of maturity and fostered the idea of shared educational values. This is how Ashley, of Chapman University, expressed it: "I think the biggest similarity between my GATE program and my college Honors program has been the sense of community. [Both provided] probably the only classes in which everyone can express themselves without fear of being ostracized." Indeed, students who have been involved in gifted programs may comfortably go on to honors classes in high school and then honors programs in college, knowing that these are safe havens in which bright minds can share ideas and differences freely and openly.

One engineering student told a wonderful--and quite literal--story of the bridge between gifted and honors programs. Daniel, of Tennessee Technological University, wrote: "I was told you were interested in stories. When in 5th grade, my 'gifted' teacher, in collaboration with other such teachers from around the country, [participated in] a bridge-building contest for students like myself. The students formed teams to focus on the project of building model bridges consisting of toothpicks and thread held together with white glue.... When construction was complete, the teams gathered to test the strength of the bridges. Weights were suspended from the bridges until the bridges collapsed.... I wouldn't realize until years later how influential this one event would be to my choice of a career. I kept my partially-collapsed bridge on my desk at home. Every night through high school, while doing homework, I would find myself staring at the bridge and how to make it better. This yearning for creation spilled out into other areas of my life, eventually compelling me to study engineering [in the honors program at TTU] working toward a career designing and building new things."

Daniel's road from gifted to honors education took him across a bridge he constructed himself! While others may not have such a literal experience, the metaphor still holds. Young students in gifted programs are already on a path that can lead them over the bridge of high school honors and AP courses on to college honors programs.

Knowing some of the philosophical similarities shared by gifted and honors programs will help you understand what a college honors program is and how it works. Generally speaking, an honors program is a sequence of courses designed specifically to bring together exceptional students. High entrance and scholarship standards, enriched curriculum, and independent learning are typical components, but there is no one model for an honors program.

What constitutes a college honors program can range from a collection of alternative honors substitutes for required core classes to a string of special issues colloquia or topic seminars. While these represent extremes, most honors programs consist of a balanced variety of course offerings at different levels. They might begin with lower division honors alternatives to general education courses (or honors sections of existing courses), then go on to integrated topic seminars, upper division advanced electives, and a creative capstone project or thesis. Some programs also offer study abroad or travel abroad options, internships in the student's major, reading groups or colloquia, and honors contracts within regular courses. Students in some honors programs may take additional departmental honors related to their major. The model depends on the vision of the institution.

Most colleges and universities use the term honors program although there is a fashionable trend toward honors colleges that grant their own diplomas and offer other new perks. Whether program or college, the undergraduate honors opportunity usually occupies one-fifth to one-quarter of the baccalaureate degree. What all undergraduate honors environments have in common is their focus on each student as an individual learner. That is why honors courses are typically small sections taught by professors who believe in their mentoring role and often have a deep influence on their students' intellectual lives.

Although entering honors students may have similar academic profiles their needs are extremely varied. Some have special learning styles or talents that need to be integrated into their degree work. Some want to or need to stay close to home; others, to go far away. Some students cannot afford the tuition at a private college, others can. Some students are joiners; others are loners. Some know what they want to study; others have no real clue. Nevertheless, their sharp minds and tremendous potential can be unlocked in a creative learning environment tailored to their particularities. The essence of honors is personal attention and a high level of challenge, designed to enrich an undergraduate college education and prepare exceptional students for life achievements.

There are honors programs and colleges in both two-year and four-year college and university settings. They exist in public as well as private, commuter as well as residential institutions. The National Collegiate Honors Council, an organization that embraces all manner of honors environments across the country, has spelled out the basic characteristics of a fully developed honors program. These include:

  • a special curriculum (usually 20-25% of an undergraduate degree);
  • faculty committed to the aims of the program;
  • visibility and high repute of the program on campus;
  • suitable quarters providing students with a lounge, reading room, and other facilities (sometimes including dormitory space);
  • special academic counseling of honors students by uniquely qualified personnel;
  • an honors director overseeing the program and its students.

Many honors directors recruit students directly. They are usually looking for high scholastic standards plus unique indicators of leadership, creativity, and unusual interests. In other words, they are looking for gifted and talented students with a great diversity of learning styles and cultural backgrounds. A high school average of 90 or better and a "hot" ACT or SAT score (which differs from program to program) may be starting points, but honors directors are frequently happy to bend even their own stated requirements in order to admit students who present unusual records of accomplishment--such as participation in a gifted program or talent in art, science, theatre, or music. Directors are looking for people rather than statistics, and sometimes the most creative or original thinkers have a mixed profile on paper. They may do poorly on SAT-type exams or resist courses that require rote memory. Directors are generally willing to gamble on a student who may not have the perfect record on paper but learns Chinese out of sheer interest, raises prize orchids, or comes from a bi-lingual/bi-cultural background that will add dimension to every class.

Honors faculty are very likely to be as eager to learn from their students as to teach. Indeed, the honors experience emphasizes studying with faculty as a shared experience. Honors--whether program or college--seeks to create a protective community of scholars in which gifted students can deepen their learning and meet sympathetic people of similar depth and complexity.

The relationships between students and faculty in honors environments is best exemplified by presentations at the annual meetings of the National Collegiate Honors Council and affiliate regional honors organizations. At honors conferences students are encouraged to run workshops, give papers, present their research, and participate with faculty in collaborative sessions. NCHC is one of the few academic organizations in which students serve on the executive committee and deliver papers in an atmosphere of appreciative collegiality. The shared experience of learning is also fostered in honors semesters run by NCHC. These transforming experiences provide immersion learning in places as different as The Grand Canyon, New York City, and The Czech Republic.

Parents of gifted children work very consciously to provide exceptional settings and experiences. For many children, these settings terminate at the end of middle school. Many students who wrote to me said that they felt frustrated when the excitement of their gifted programs suddenly ended. Most went on to honors classes in high school hoping to find some of the same rewards. A good number agreed that high school honors and AP classes kept up the edge of competition and made them eager to get into honors programs in college.

In many ways undergraduate honors education is perfectly designed for talented and gifted students. On the one hand, it brings together a support group of like-minded learners; on the other hand, it leaves plenty of room for these students to fulfill their individual strengths--to double major, play in the orchestra, write for the school paper, act, join a team, do research in a laboratory, or work as interns. The proportion of honors to the total undergraduate degree allows students the flexibility to develop academically and socially within honors but also in their other classes, dorms, clubs, and athletic teams. Most important, the intent of honors programs is not to be harder or excessive but to be different in many of the same ways cultivated by gifted education. For students who have already been through gifted programs, honors will be a familiar and comfortable creative environment.

Many--though certainly not all--institutions have special honors scholarships linked to participation in the program. The idea is to reward past academic achievement in high school by giving students interested in joining the honors program the scholarship assistance that will help them pay for their higher education.

Although participation in an honors program might thus become an "obligation," it should be a welcome one rather than a burden. Almost always, the honors curriculum is incorporated within whatever number of credits is required of every student for graduation. The program is usually open to students of most or every major on a campus and very rarely requires students to take additional credits. Students who complete an honors program or honors college curriculum frequently receive transcript and diploma notations, as well as certificates, medallions or other citations at graduation ceremonies. All this is great for their resumes and professional credentials!

Since honors is exclusively an undergraduate program, many honors program graduates go on to take advanced degrees or enter professional training--law, medicine, engineering, teaching. The experience of doing undergraduate research gives them tremendous preparation for graduate research.

Honors education continues the process of teaching students to think and write clearly, to be excited by ideas, and to become independent, creative, self-confident learners. It prepares college students for professional choices in every imaginable sphere of life.

Interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary courses are part of many programs, along with the technique of team-teaching that encourages multiple perspectives. In some settings the students themselves are trained as "peer mentors" and share in teaching responsibilities. More and more programs are also making study abroad a part of the whole learning adventure. Imagine the excitement of going to England or Mexico as part of a freshman experience or reading Plato and taking off for Greece.

I have said before that gifted students are already on the road to honors. At this stage of their young careers, you may well be walking that road with them. For parents, as well as for students, that road is well marked. By way of summarizing what college honors programs have to offer, here are some useful signposts that parents of high-potential children might consider:

REST AREA AHEAD. For parents of gifted children, the process of education is often a family affair; the time, the nurturing, the mentoring, facilitating, and special opportunities that parents provide can be at once both exhilarating and physically exhausting. Parents who have been actively involved in the education of their gifted children sometimes may find it difficult to let go. Keep in mind, then, that if your children enroll in an honors program, there will be new sources of the direction and encouragement they need to enrich their education. One of the most reassuring elements of honors programs and colleges is the intensity of nurturing that they provide. Honors directors are typically engaged with their students. They meet socially with them, host dinners for them, travel with them, encourage their creativity, and advise them with respect to courses, careers, and life issues. Many honors directors build friendships with their students that last a lifetime.

The center of any honors program is its lounge space. Some institutions even have an honors house with living and learning quarters together. The central idea of honors is to build community, and so the relationships among director, students and faculty are essential.

STOP! PAY TOLL. College can be a significant expense for most families, and the costs for tuition, student fees, lab fees, materials, housing, meals, and transportation add up quickly and are steadily rising. Indeed, the college path has many tollbooths, but honors programs and colleges often control a great deal of merit-based scholarship money. Honors can be a way of "using your brains" to lessen the tuition bills! As a parent, feel free to talk frankly with honors directors or deans about your interest in merit-based scholarships for your child.

CAUTION: FALLING ROCKS. Being alert to problems helps avoid danger. When high-ability students enter college, one of their greatest dangers arises from culture shock. High school was comfortable and getting high grades was often easy. College often presents new challenges, expectations, and standards, and many high-ability students are ill-prepared for that first B or C. Honors faculty are generally trained to be sensitive to the impact of grades, and work with students to help them rise to new expectations of achievement. Being in an honors environment can enable students to support each other and learn new time-management and study skills that will guide them on a safe course around the falling rocks. In helping each other they learn to cooperate as well as to compete, and to respect the intellect of others. Along the way, they often outgrow initial shyness and develop strong social skills. They also learn to accept some of their weaknesses as well as their strengths.

ROAD FORKS AHEAD. Gifted and talented children often have many strengths and interests that compete for their attention and lead them in different directions. I'm reminded of signposts at the zoo pointing one way to cats and camels and another to primates and reptiles. I always want to walk in both directions at once because all the animals interest me. At a certain point, young people have to make choices about which way to go first: that is, which interest to pursue as a major and career and which to maintain as a lively avocation. College advisors help students make those choices. Many honors programs and colleges have their own trained advising staff. In some cases honors faculty serve as academic advisors. Students in honors also have the benefit of the director or dean, who typically welcomes the opportunity to speak with students about their course of study and career plans.

SPEED LIMIT. "When I was a child the open road in western states often had speed listed as "Reasonable and Proper"! Although those signs have long since disappeared, honors programs keep to that self-controlled speed. While undergraduate degrees are generally thought to take four years, a number of students now take closer to five, while some who are eager to move on complete their degree in three. There is no set speed at which to study, and for high-ability children, with their own special needs and interests, the flexibility of going through honors at their own pace may be personally important. In general, honors directors are supportive of students moving ahead at their own pace. Many gifted children will have taken some college courses and AP courses in high school. Recently, these students have been bringing in a semester or more of college work even before they even get started. I try to encourage them to use this to their advantage. This does not always mean graduating early. Instead of simply rushing forward, the earned credit can give them the freedom to experiment in fields of learning they have never tried--such as philosophy, anthropology, or Japanese.

KEEP TO THE RIGHT. I urge you to stay on this road and, to give serious consideration to including examination of honors options one of the key points in your guidance and discussions with your children about college choices. As you search for colleges, be sure to inquire whether the schools that interest you have honors programs. These are likely to be listed on the institutions' web sites.

You can also refine your search using Peterson's Honors Programs & Colleges, ISBN 0-7689-1068-4, now in its third edition. The book contains information about honors curriculum and scholarship opportunities in 577 American colleges and universities that hold membership in the National Collegiate Honors Council. This reference book is available directly through Petersons at 1-800-338-3282 or

The National Collegiate Honors Council also has a website. Use these to make contacts. Don't be afraid to call honors directors and ask them about opportunities in their program.

In talking with an honors director or an admissions counselor, here are some focused questions that might help you discover whether a particular honors program will meet your needs:

  1. What percentage of the student body is in the honors program? (The lower, the more selective the program.)
  2. How many credits is the honors program and how are these distributed throughout the degree?
  3. Does your program have opportunities for independent research?
  4. Does your program offer any scholarship assistance?
  5. Will I be able to double major?
  6. What are the special benefits to being in your program?
  7. Will honors help me: study abroad, get an internship, prepare my resume?
  8. Will honors appear on my diploma?

Author Note. Dr. Joan Digby is the Director of Honors at Long Island University- C. W Post Campus. She was the 1999-2000 President of the National Collegiate Honors Council.

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