What's the deal with honor colleges?

Back when I went to college there was no such thing. My kids haven’t even started applying to college so I have no experience through them.

In some ways they seem like the ideal place for a bright student. You don’t have to have the supercompetiveness of a top fifty college every second for four years. You can choose to hang out with the more studious types or the regular students.

Anybody have any information to share?

Well, since you specifically asked for my input via e-mail, I’ll mention some of my own experiences from my honors college (with many apologies for the length…I didn’t intend to write so much when I started).

Mine was a state school up in Pennsylvania that received an amazingly generous endowment from a wealthy benefactor to put together an honors college. It has been running only since 1996, so it’s not quite as polished and smooth-running as other honors programs, but it’s still pretty good, considering. It’s really selective (or so I was told) and only about 100 students are admitted for each class, leaving around 400 in the whole college. There are about 13,000 students in the entire university, so the honors college really is just a miniscule portion of the university.

There’s a basic core curriculum (which is fairly common among most honors programs, as far as I can tell – among the really good ones, anyway. The bad ones tend to be the “just show up and we’ll put you in a smaller class” type. Not what you’re looking for at all) that looks at various questions like “How do we tell the good from the bad?” and “What is knowledge and what is belief?” from various angles, like through art and philosophy and history and so on. That covers almost all of the liberal studies requirements (using small classes, even…though the university in general has small class sizes) and involves enough writing to make your printer weep in frustration. But that’s another story.

Obviously, the curriculum isn’t the biggest part of the whole deal. It’s just a drop in the bucket, really. All people holding scholarships from the university must do 30 hours of community service per semester, thanks to the wishes from the benefactor. Plus, all freshmen are required to live on campus in the honors dorm (and in practice, most sophomores and some juniors live there too). Classes are held in the honors building, most of the HC activities are held there, everything. There is a real community fostered there in the building – you understand what everyone else is going through and everyone is always there. It’s really fun sometimes. People there tended to be really active; an honors student headed up nearly every campus organization I was in (or even considered joining), there was always some kind of activism going on, usually for gay rights or increased voter registration, and lots of people loved to hold these amazing discussions at the drop of a hat. Plus, there were always people around to just hang around with. Everybody was acquaintances at the very least.

At the same time, however, it was just maddening. Imagine a big building full of the loudest SDMB members you can think of. It sounds really great at first…and for a lot of people, it stays really great. But after a while, the stress and the drama and the elitism and the arrogance that fills the atmosphere in the building can just be too much for some people. While there are a ton of privileges and extras that come with being an honors student, there’s also a lot of pressure there to live up to the expectations people have, both students and faculty. There’s a fairly high dropout rate at my old school for people after freshman year. People get tired of all of it and leave…sometimes just the honors college, others (like me) leave the university altogether. In my case, I left after my fall semester freshman year because of social problems – I was homesick, I resented all of the stress being put on me by other people, I hated the way most of the other students acted…so I just left. For me, the benefits really didn’t outweigh the negative aspects, though I would absolutely recommend my school to anyone who asks; when it was good, it was absolutely fantastic and I loved it.

I just think people should be aware of more aspects in choosing an honors program besides a curriculum. There are always more ramifications than you expect (like the Catholic girl I knew who couldn’t convince other students in the university that she was neither atheist nor lesbian because, after all, all honors students were gay liberal pacifist atheists) and you need to talk to actual students who aren’t paid tour leaders (because those people aren’t going to tell you anything you can’t get from the pretty guidebooks) to get an idea of the problems and the actual benefits so you can decide if it works for you.

Jess, thanks for taking the time to respond. I appreciate it. It sounds like in your case the HC was more similar to a high pressure top 50 college than different. Just happened to be located in a medium sized university.

Hmm… sounds like the university equivilant of the International Baccalaureate, a international high school diploma. I would say that it’s something that suits a particular style of person, you really have to love knowledge for it’s own sake and not for the greater wealth or prestige or anything like that. A lot of people believe they do love knowledge but when it comes to the crunch, you have to ask if your really deluding yourself. The good news is that nearly everybody who took the IB knew if it was right for them about 6 months into the program. It shouldn’t be hard to switch out if you feel it’s not for you and the benifit is that you have an easy second semester since you’ve been working at a vastly higher level. But the people who stay in, even though they bitch prodigiously, will still come out of the course with a sense that they gained something of value through the experience.

Again, I’ve never even heard of honours college since I’m not an American but that was my experience with the IB.