The Benefits of an Honors College

My Honors College friends with the undergraduate thesis bookshelves. 

My Honors College friends with the undergraduate thesis bookshelves. 

The college you choose to attend makes a difference. College is, for most students, both the launching-point for their careers and the juncture-point of childhood and adulthood—the time when they’re figuring out who they are and what they want in life. So the context of your four years of college matters. It matters (in varying degrees) for the opportunities you’ll find after college, and it also matters immensely for the experiences you’ll have during this time. Making a decision like that can be extremely difficult for a high school student, and the range of options and decisions is staggering. I’ve written in the past about how to think through the college selection process, as well as featuring guest posts on the benefits of community colleges and small town, small universities.

This question, “where do I want to go to college?” is a critical one for high school students.

For many high-fliers, private colleges and universities seem the logical next step: prestigious and tailored to those who excel academically.

When I began my college search, I had very little direction. I knew I wanted to go out of state, and because I was a motivated student, I knew I wanted to find a school that would push me academically and provide a context for me to be engaged, active, and surrounded by possibilities.

In the end, instead of shooting for the Ivy League, I chose to attend the University of Oregon—a public institution with over 20,000 undergraduate students.

On paper, perhaps, we were not a good fit. It is a large school with a party reputation and a significant sports culture. But in the end, the UO was the only school I applied to because I had visited and recognized a real opportunity at that massive public school: it had an Honors College. And that turned out to be the right fit for me. It held all the bustle and potential of a large public institution, with the excellence and rigor of a small liberal arts college.

The honors college within a public university was the perfect fit for me, and is an option worth exploring for many students preparing to make their way through the college selection process.

The Benefits of Honors Colleges in Public Universities

Generally speaking, an Honors College will allow you flexibility in your major while providing a small academic home while in college. Although each program is different, you usually take a certain number of classes within the Honors College—generally during your freshman and sophomore years—and in this time benefit from a community of motivated peers, a lower faculty to student ratio, and increased access to resources and mentoring. You are, in effect, attending a small school. However, another portion of your time is spent outside of the Honors College, pursing your major and degree in a specialized field of your choice.

Essentially, you have the best of all worlds.

Cost is often cited as a main reason students should consider state schools rather than private institutions. Particularly if you stay in state, but almost regardless of where you’re considering, you will save money by attending a public university rather than a liberal arts college. Your college search will have to balance money with the myriad of other factors in choosing the right school. It turned out (for me, at least), that the Honors College option won for just about every criteria, even without considering tuition costs.

Why an Honors College Education Worked for Me

Professors

I really got to know my Honors College professors. I took multiple classes from them, got to know their research interests, and some even became mentors for me. This includes professors outside of my main area of academic interest, who opened the way to opportunities I might never have pursued without their guidance. Several wrote letters of recommendation for me over the years. A few of my Honors College professors even came to my graduation party, met my family, and continue to be important in my life to this day.

While the professors I met through the departments I majored in (outside the Honors College) are also incredibly important in this way, the context and structure of the Honors College was developed to encourage connection between professors and their students.

Professors are often the most interesting people on campus. Any and all chances to get to know highly accomplished faculty should be pursued with the greatest enthusiasm.

Peers

I met the most incredible fellow students through my studies in the Honors College. Because we all entered university with different interests and on different academic paths, we brought an enormous breadth of interest and experience to our studies. My group of eight best friends were all in the Honors College, and all of us were studying different things (art history, pre-med, international studies, family and human services, Japanese, archaeology, comparative literature, sociology, chemistry…)

Katie Dwyer Honors College Freshman Year

My peers in the honors college were engaged in social causes, campus life, travel, sports, language learning, student leadership, undergraduate research, and more. They were some of the most active and engaged students on the campus, and sharing the context of the Honors College with them meant that I regularly came into contact with peers who I admired and often came to collaborate with.

As a motivated student, it can be difficult to sit in a class with a high proportion of students who are not engaged or actively participating. This is most often the case with the lower level general education classes. When you get large groups of students who are reluctantly fulfilling their graduation requirements, it can be limiting and discouraging to your own interest in the topic. Most Honors Colleges are set up to spring board students into higher-division classes, meaning that they fulfill general education requirements within the Honors College, rather than on the campus as a whole.

Opportunities

Often, an Honors College will stand slightly apart from the university as a whole, and will offer opportunities and benefits not available to the entire student body. This often includes guest speakers, specialized classes, field trips, student organizations, alumni mentors, on-campus facilities, and sometimes scholarship funds. While these opportunities might be somewhat offset by higher academic expectations or more extensive graduation requirements, they could have an impact on the kinds of activities available to you.

Expectations

Being part of an Honors College often comes with higher academic and sometimes extracurricular obligations. You might have more demanding requirements, GPA minimums, and an obligation to take on additional work. One of the key extra requirements in my experience at the UO Honors College was to write an undergraduate thesis. However, as I have written about several times in past posts, I consider this to be an opportunity rather than a burden (even if it does occasionally feel quite burdensome). If more is expected of you, you will also have greater resources at your disposal to achieve these expectations, as well as the knowledge that you will graduate with a more distinguished transcript and resume.

Reputation

Reputation is the final factor I’ll list as a great reason to choose an Honors College. This refers to two separate instances where reputation can make a difference: while you’re a student, and once you’ve graduated.

I can only speak to the resume value of an Honors College diploma from the perspective of someone who has one—I can’t say for sure just what a quantitative difference it will make. However, if you look at the post-graduation career trajectories of Honors College Students, you often find a high proportion continuing on to further education; getting involved in service work on the US or international level; or finding satisfying options for work or internships.

The biggest reputational benefit I witnessed was while I was on campus as an Honors College student. When meeting University leadership or working with on-campus organizations, I often found that my Honors College peers had helped advance my cause by demonstrating commitment and excellence in the past. In the context of a large university, it is easy to get lost in the shuffle and sometimes difficult to prove your worth amid all the thousands of other students “just like you.” Saying that you’re part of the Honors College can open doors, if only by proving that you’ve signed on for extra work and have been admitted to a more challenging academic path.

That can make all the difference in developing a project, finding an internship, applying for an on-campus job, or in identifying and working with a mentor.


As you are launching your college search process, consider looking at large schools with an Honors College. You might find that a small academic home within a large, opportunity-filled university context is just what you need to excel in your college life. 


Please leave a comment with your thoughts or stories of Honors College experiences, and share this post with any high-flying high school students you know.