Last Friday, I mentioned that TG had received offers of admission to Honors Colleges from several flagship state universities, and she was unsure whether to assume that Honors Colleges are substantially different from their host universities. or if they are just marketing gimmicks. I asked my wise and worldly readers for their answers, hoping that they saw things I did not.
I’ve said it before, but I have the best readers ever.
Unsurprisingly, variations of “it depends” were the most common. Most responses, however, were positive; even the most skeptical have noted that HC students often get first dibs upon enrolling, which is not to be overlooked in the context of many top universities.
Several reported variations on what one reader wrote: “The Honors College offered great opportunities in the first two years, but its importance waned and became more of a burden as it approached Graduation.” I could see that. The first two years are when separate dormitory leads to friendships with academically ambitious peers, and when interdisciplinary seminars (assuming they exist) tend to matter the most. In recent years, students are beginning to focus more on their majors. A few people even mentioned that their children had to drop out of Honors College programs after a while because the HC program requirements were not compatible with completing the major within the normal time frame. It looks like a design flaw, but the colleges are complicated enough that I can see how that would happen.
Another reader put it succinctly: “Apart from the scholarships, I believe the Honors College is, like the college in general, what you make of it.” Both points are well taken. Scholarships are beautiful and should not be taken lightly. And we’ve all seen students successfully navigate background programs seemingly unaffected. It may be parental bias, but I’m not worried about TG trying to coast. That’s not how it’s wired. I want to make sure that wherever she goes, the raw material is there for her to do something great with.
A respondent who works in residence wrote that “honours programs provide students with a _community_ of other ambitious and intelligent students. In many cases, this community building happens before students even move in. I really like this stitch. A university with tens of thousands of students can be overwhelming for someone who had, until then, lived in a house of three or four people. Having a smaller community as your home base can provide a sense of belonging. Finding the right balance between safety and exploration is as much art as science, but the idea of having a familiar group to retreat to between adventures outside seems to make sense. This is a similar argument to the attractiveness of Greek organizations, except that this one is organized specifically around academic ambition.
Another reader referred me to the National Collegiate Honors Council, which I did not know about.
One reader noted that the contrast between the small, intense classes in his honors program and the cavernous introductory classes he took outside of the program convinced him to transfer to a small liberal arts college after freshman year. . It’s the kind of story that appears in the stats as a failure, but I’d say it’s actually a success; he was able to figure out what he wanted and go for it. That’s kind of the point.
Another mentioned undergraduate research, although I suspect this is more common in STEM fields than in the humanities. I wish I was wrong on that. (In the context of undergraduate research, one reader called Honors College a kind of “dating service” that matched ambitious undergraduates with professors willing to work with them. The metaphor is problematic to obvious way, but it’s also kinda awesome.)
Finally, Ron Lieber wrote to challenge my characterization of how he covered Honors Colleges in his book, The Price You Pay for College. He denied using the word “traps”, which is true. I shouldn’t have used quotes. However, I maintain the substance of my interpretation. The third part of his book is titled “Value: Things Worth Paying For”, and covers school size, counseling offices, undergraduate mental health centers and “peers who are worth being friends with.” The fourth part offers a contrast; it’s called “Money Saving Tricks That Will Tempt You”. Such temptations, in his account, include community college, specialty colleges, military service, and gap years. In the context of the overall thrust of the book, as I have read it, the “hacks” in question have been offered as far inferior to what they are purported to be, and even potentially dangerous. As someone who has spent the last two decades in the world of community colleges – shamelessly – I was put off by being relegated to the category of “hacks”. There are many paths to success and many definitions of it; it is better to give everyone the respect that is due to them.
TG doesn’t know where she’s going to land at this point. She hasn’t heard of many of the places she applied for yet. When we have the answers and the financial offers on the table, we will have this conversation. But I must thank my wise and worldly readers for offering far more nuance and depth to the subject than I could provide myself.