Teens craving challenge in college can find it in various forms. Ivies and other top-tier schools may be the best match for some gifted students. A nationally recognized program in their field of study may be the best choice for other bright teens. For some, though, the best fit comes in the form of an honors program within a larger institution.
Honors opportunities at the college level come in two main varieties: the honors program or the honors college within a university. Many institutions also offer departmental honors wherein a student completes additional requirements— usually a few courses and/or a senior thesis—beyond the regular requirements to graduate in that major. Honors programs and honors colleges, though, offer opportunities across disciplines and even beyond academics.
The National Collegiate Honors Council, on its Web site, enumerates “Basic Characteristics of a Fully Developed Honors Program,” including criteria for honors faculty, “program requirements [that] constitute . . . no less than 15%” of students’ coursework, and “carefully designed educational experiences.” The organization’s recommendations for an honors college expand upon those for an honors program, adding existence “as an equal collegiate unit,” complete with a dean and a budget on par with those of other colleges at the university.
While often attractive at first blush, honors programs vary widely between institutions, just as gifted young adults do. Teens searching for the best fit for their higher education, as well as the parents, teachers, counselors, and gifted coordinators who support those teens, should research carefully both the benefits and the demands of any honors program under consideration.
Academics Within and Beyond HonorsCoursework, of course, is the cornerstone to any collegiatelevel honors program or honors college, and honors courses come in all flavors. Some schools offer honors sections of mostly introductory-level courses that meet general distribution requirements for a degree. Some design seminars that are either interdisciplinary or narrowly focused on specialized, even quirky topics. Some colleges provide both types. Often these courses are smaller, limited to about 20 students, whereas large university lecture classes can have ten times that many students taking the same introductory course. In honors courses, the emphasis often shifts to more critical thinking and discussion. Ideally, these courses offer not necessarily more work but more challenging and more engaging work. An example is Bowling Green State University’s Honors Program, in which homework in honors courses is not more time consuming, but more interesting. High school students investigating honors programs should verify that there are enough seats available for most or all students who want to take the various courses.
The benefit of more discussion, however, is greatest when only honors students are permitted to enroll in honors courses, which is not the case at every institution. Another important factor contributing to the quality of honors coursework is the level of the honors students themselves. When researching an honors college, families should look at the SAT/ACT score minimums and any other academic requirements for admission into the honors program. It may be the case that the entire student body of some colleges and smaller universities achieves at a higher level than the honors population within a larger university.
Just as important as the caliber of classmates is the quality of instruction. Most honors courses feature the best professors on campus. Often, this is a mutually beneficial relationship, as many tenured professors most enjoy teaching honors students. But the benefit to the students is even more dramatic when introductory classes normally taught by graduate-student TAs are replaced by honors classes facilitated by veteran instructors with PhDs.
Central to many honors curricula is the senior thesis or capstone project. Many programs require an in-depth research or creative project that spans the honors student’s last semester or even entire last year as an undergraduate. When the assignment is a natural outgrowth of the student’s studies, a capstone pursuit enables a learner to produce a graduate-caliber product under the individual guidance of a faculty member. Whether a novella authored by a creative writing major, a journal article composed by a chemistry major, or a one-act play directed by a theater major, such substantive achievements strengthen students’ applications for both graduate school and the workplace. On the other hand, if the capstone project is just a big add-on, it can be a tremendous burden for a senior busy with other pursuits.
Course requirements to graduate with honors may prove to be too much for some bright learners. Incoming college students should reflect carefully on their own interests and goals. Just as no single elementary school gifted program is a perfect fit for all gifted youth, neither is any honors program a perfect fit for all gifted college students. A strong student may very well decide that her limited time in college is better devoted to a full second major in another area of strength and interest. Another top student may choose to develop his leadership skills through extensive community service. A creative student may devote herself to multiple theater productions throughout the academic year. Even students who begin an honors program may decide a year or two later that honors must give way to a passion with a stronger draw.
A few schools exempt honors students from the coursework normally required to develop “well-rounded” scholars. Often called distribution requirements, or general education or general studies courses, these checklists require undergrads to collect credits from various disciplines like natural sciences, social sciences, and the arts. The Echols Scholars at the University of Virginia not only are “free from all distribution and area requirements within the College” but also are permitted to design their own interdisciplinary major. Similarly, Ohio University’s Honors Tutorial College exempts participants from all university general education requirements except freshman and junior composition, and even those can be waived.
Social Supports and ProgrammingThose enrolled in honors programs or colleges often enjoy a few benefits beyond academics, and such perks differ between schools. One frequent and highly visible attraction is a livinglearning community arrangement, offered by many four-year residential colleges. Frequently, some of the most desirable housing on campus is set aside for honors college students. Besides creature comforts, though, students enjoy the benefit of an instant community. Especially for introverted gifted kids landing at a large university, the social pluses of the college within a college may be even more valuable than the academic benefits of honors. At Miami University’s Honors Living Learning Community, students forge bonds in a cluster of two or three courses that they take together. Some schools even have the honors college office, classrooms, music practice rooms, art studios, or computer labs built into the honors residence hall. Prospective students should ask about special programming offered to residents of honors housing. Additionally, prospective students interested in honors housing should inquire whether enough beds are available to meet demand every year. Conversely, students interested in honors academics but not in honors housing—especially those interested in a different living-learning community like the arts, world languages or wellness dorms—should verify that honors students are not required to live in honors housing, as they are at some schools.
Often honors college programming offers stimulating intellectual opportunities outside the classroom. When a national speaker comes to campus, honors students might be invited to join her for dinner. Cultural opportunities, such as plays and musical performances, even out of town, may be arranged just for honors college participants. Honors students frequently are encouraged to attend—and even present at—professional conferences.
Practical PerksThe most attractive honors programs offer a multitude of practical benefits, too. Chief among these, naturally, is money. Many institutions reserve for honors college students various scholarships, study abroad funding, and grants for research and special projects. The latter two are available through the Honors Scholars Program at the University of Cincinnati. Every semester, the program offers at least one seminar course that culminates in a one- to two-week trip, with a substantial portion of each student’s travel costs paid by the program. UC honors scholars have ventured to Montreal, the Brazilian Amazon, the Galapagos Islands, and dozens of other distant locales. Honors scholars also are invited each semester to submit proposals for grants for experiential learning projects.
Nearly as valuable as funding to some students is the possibility of priority registration. Especially at large schools where required courses can fill quickly, the ability to register early each term can mean the difference between graduating on time and not. In their investigation into various programs, high school seniors should ask pointed questions— for example, whether honors students get to register before all other undergrads, or whether honors freshmen register before other freshmen but after all non-honors seniors, juniors, and sophomores? Particularly for gifted students who matriculate with much of their freshman-level coursework completed through AP, IB, and dual enrollment, the opportunity to get into upper-level courses becomes relevant.
Various types of professional guidance may be reserved for honors students. The Honors College at the University of Akron, for example, offers “personal academic/career advisers.” At some schools, the office that supports students in applying for national awards (like the Rhodes, Fulbright, Goldwater, and Truman scholarships) is housed within the honors college and may even reserve its services solely for members. Leads on internships, research opportunities, and certain on- and off-campus jobs like tutoring often are funneled through the honors department precisely because employers and researchers seek honors-caliber students. Leadership training is a common offering, as are service options. In fact, some programs require completion of service hours in order to retain a spot in honors. Workshops on graduate and professional school application often are a staple of honors programming. Virginia Commonwealth University goes further, offering only to its Honors College students the opportunity to apply for the Guaranteed Admissions Program, which exempts undergraduate seniors from having to apply to get into VCU’s graduate school or professional programs in several health fields.
Some programs extend to undergraduate honors students benefits normally reserved for master’s and doctoral students. Artists get individual studio space. Science students get lab space. Honors students are offered a private, locking study space in the library. And honors students automatically get extended library due dates, as long as a full semester.
Finally, nearly every honors program offers some type of recognition, which may be a notation of honors on the transcript or a special cord or medal worn at graduation. The best reward, however, is the satisfaction of completing a supportive, challenging program that proved to be a good fit for the student.
Anne Flick, a GIS and former gifted coordinator, holds a master’s degree in gifted education. She serves families and schools as an educational consultant specializing in gifted education. She has presented at national and state conferences as well as local parent groups.
Digby, J. (2005). Smart choices: Honors programs & colleges (4th ed.). Thomson Peterson’s: Lawrenceville, NJ.Overdue for an update, this book nevertheless offers a good starting point for researching honors colleges and programs nationwide. Produced by the National Collegiate Honor Council, this guide has narrative entries from each member program. Deans and directors of the programs themselves have submitted descriptions, including participation requirements, admissions process, and scholarship availability. Additionally, the campus overview of each institution, provided by publisher Thomson Peterson’s, covers basic information like enrollment, tuition, and academic programs available—as of 2004.
The Web site of the National Collegiate Honors Council: www.nchchonors.orgUnfortunately, this site lacks any type of search function to narrow down the list of member institutions even to a geographical area; it is simply an alphabetical list of members, each entry a hyperlink straight to the honors college or program. There are a few informational nuggets on the site, however, such as the distinction between an honors college and an honors program, as well as an explanation of the “basic characteristics” of each when fully developed. These elements provide applicants with a list of characteristics to look for and to ask about as they shop for colleges. The FAQs for high school students serve to reassure teens that they will not sacrifice their GPAs in order to reap the benefits of an honors education, which are enumerated as well.
Permission to reprint this article has been granted to The Davidson Institute by the Ohio Association for Gifted Children (OAGC) and the author.
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