These Public Schools Offer an Honors College

·9 min read

For students looking for small classes and an academic challenge within the setting of a large public school, an honors college might be the right fit.

Publicly supported state schools often offer honors colleges as a way to attract talented students who might normally be lured away to a private school, college advising experts say.

"Select students, usually based on the strength of their academic records, may be invited to participate in an honors college, or students apply for admission into an honors college," Christine Chu, a premier college counselor at IvyWise, a New York-based education consulting company, wrote in an email. "More than an educational experience, honors college can be used as a recruiting tool."

Experts say perks of an honors college, which differ from honors programs, may include benefits such as first pick at class registration, support for research opportunities on campus and special freshman dormitories. These schools typically offer small honors classes and are led by a dean, to name other defining characteristics.

[Read: Public College Honors Programs Give Students VIP Treatment.]

"Honors colleges can make a large school feel small by offering a community of like-minded learners," Mandee Heller Adler, founder and president of Florida-based International College Counselors, wrote in an email. "The classes are usually smaller and discussion-based, enabling students to have more thoughtful conversations with peers and professors."

Students interested in honors colleges should know that the work is likely to be challenging. That's by design.

"Honors classes are usually more rigorous and students are expected to participate and excel in their classes," Adler says. "At some honors colleges, students must submit a thesis or final project during their graduation year."

State honors colleges typically have separate, and elevated, admissions requirements -- such as a set GPA and ACT or SAT scores -- after students are accepted at the main university.

[Read: ACT vs. SAT: How to Decide Which Test to Take.]

Though some honors colleges offer living and learning communities where students in the program share residential facilities, that has been upended at many schools due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has limited student housing at campuses across the U.S. Even so, experts say honors college programming continues, much of it shifting online.

"COVID-19 has impacted all colleges and universities in every way, from classroom learning to student and campus life, and these implications certainly affect the honors college experience as well, e.g., cancelled programs, affected courses, and impacted resident options," Chu says. "In general, though, universities are trying hard to do their best given their particular local situations and pivoting to alternatives in academic offerings and community-building efforts."

Adler notes that honors colleges have worked to maintain continuity through Zoom meetings and small group breakout sessions to work on projects, giving students a deeper online experience than posting on discussion boards. "While this doesn't quite compare with the usual, unique, living-learning together part of an honor college experience, schools are trying."

While the University of Alabama has the largest enrollment of any state honors college, most states offer a similar type of school housed within a larger public institution. According to data submitted in an annual survey to U.S. News, 122 ranked public colleges and universities offered an honors college in fall 2019. The list below is sorted by public honors colleges with the largest enrollment.

School (state)

U.S. NEWS rank and category

Honors college enrollment (fall 2019)

University of Alabama

143 (tie), National Universities

8,266

Arizona State University--Tempe

103 (tie), National Universities

5,964

University of Arizona

97 (tie), National Universities

4,174

University of Arkansas

160 (tie), National Universities

3,822

New Mexico State University

241 (tie), National Universities

3,609

University of Massachusetts--Amherst

66 (tie), National Universities

3,212

Oklahoma State University

187 (tie), National Universities

2,585

University of Oklahoma

133 (tie), National Universities

2,583

Purdue University--West Lafayette (IN)

53 (tie), National Universities

2,506

University of Houston

176 (tie), National Universities

2,397

Florida International University

187 (tie), National Universities

2,380

University of Utah

97 (tie), National Universities

2,349

University of Kentucky

133 (tie), National Universities

2,342

University of South Florida

103 (tie), National Universities

2,338

University of Alabama at Birmingham

153 (tie), National Universities

2,223

Wayne State University (MI)

249 (tie), National Universities

2,219

University of Memphis (TN)

258 (tie), National Universities

2,020

University of Illinois--Chicago

112 (tie), National Universities

1,955

George Mason University (VA)

143 (tie), National Universities

1,940

University of Central Florida

160 (tie), National Universities

1,915

Louisiana State University--Baton Rouge

153 (tie), National Universities

1,831

Auburn University (AL)

97 (tie), National Universities

1,790

University of Massachusetts--Lowell

176 (tie), National Universities

1,779

University of North Texas

249 (tie), National Universities

1,741

Virginia Tech

74 (tie), National Universities

1,734

Western Michigan University

258 (tie), National Universities

1,732

Grand Valley State University (MI)

28 (tie), Regional Universities (Midwest)

1,700

Mississippi State University

206 (tie), National Universities

1,696

Clemson University (SC)

74 (tie), National Universities

1,684

University of Mississippi

160 (tie), National Universities

1,672

Kent State University (OH)

217 (tie), National Universities

1,635

University of Toledo (OH)

298-389, National Universities

1,561

University of Pittsburgh--Pittsburgh Campus

58 (tie), National Universities

1,500

St. Mary's College of Maryland

80 (tie), National Liberal Arts Colleges

1,491

Northern Arizona University

284 (tie), National Universities

1,482

Youngstown State University (OH)

112 (tie), Regional Universities (Midwest)

1,266

San Diego State University

143 (tie), National Universities

1,257

Western Carolina University (NC)

25, Regional Universities (South)

1,230

Georgia State University

206 (tie), National Universities

1,208

University of Texas at San Antonio

298-389, National Universities

1,191

Western Kentucky University

298-389, National Universities

1,177

University at Buffalo--SUNY

88 (tie), National Universities

1,142

University of Wyoming

196 (tie), National Universities

1,112

Eastern Michigan University

298-389, National Universities

1,095

Indiana State University

298-389, National Universities

1,094

Middle Tennessee State University

298-389, National Universities

1,047

Washington State University

176 (tie), National Universities

1,045

University of Maryland--College Park

58 (tie), National Universities

1,029

Boise State University (ID)

298-389, National Universities

1,020

University of Alabama--Huntsville

272 (tie), National Universities

1,010

Bowling Green State University (OH)

258 (tie), National Universities

980

University of Vermont

118 (tie), National Universities

958

Virginia Commonwealth University

160 (tie), National Universities

910

College of Charleston (SC)

8, Regional Universities (South)

852

Arkansas State University

298-389, National Universities

835

Western Illinois University

60 (tie), Regional Universities (Midwest)

830

James Madison University (VA)

3, Regional Universities (South)

811

University of Maine

206 (tie), National Universities

748

University of North Carolina--Charlotte

227 (tie), National Universities

746

Coastal Carolina University (SC)

45 (tie), Regional Universities (South)

730

New College of Florida

84 (tie), National Liberal Arts Colleges

726

New Jersey Institute of Technology

118 (tie), National Universities

726

Portland State University (OR)

284 (tie), National Universities

723

Sam Houston State University (TX)

272 (tie), National Universities

723

University of Massachusetts--Boston

227 (tie), National Universities

692

Wichita State University (KS)

298-389, National Universities

684

Towson University (MD)

196 (tie), National Universities

677

University of North Carolina--Wilmington

187 (tie), National Universities

675

East Carolina University (NC)

217 (tie), National Universities

662

Texas State University

298-389, National Universities

655

Murray State University (KY)

26 (tie), Regional Universities (South)

631

University of Missouri--St. Louis

258 (tie), National Universities

591

University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee

298-389, National Universities

591

University of North Carolina--Greensboro

258 (tie), National Universities

590

Northern Kentucky University

298-389, National Universities

549

Tarleton State University (TX)

64, Regional Universities (West)

548

Morgan State University (MD)

298-389, National Universities

514

Southern University and A&M College (LA)

103-133, Regional Universities (South)

500

Florida Atlantic University

272 (tie), National Universities

479

Salisbury University (MD)

67 (tie), Regional Universities (North)

479

University of Southern Mississippi

298-389, National Universities

479

University of Maryland--Baltimore County

160 (tie), National Universities

471

West Chester University of Pennsylvania

50 (tie), Regional Universities (North)

423

University of Missouri--Kansas City

272 (tie), National Universities

408

University at Albany--SUNY

160 (tie), National Universities

407

University of South Carolina

118 (tie), National Universities

407

California State Polytechnic University--Pomona

10 (tie), Regional Universities (West)

389

Stony Brook University--SUNY

88 (tie), National Universities

370

Lamar University (TX)

298-389, National Universities

362

Longwood University (VA)

16 (tie), Regional Universities (South)

362

SUNY Brockport

83 (tie), Regional Universities (North)

357

University of Tennessee--Chattanooga

298-389, National Universities

311

University of South Alabama

298-389, National Universities

307

Ohio University

176 (tie), National Universities

301

Radford University (VA)

33 (tie), Regional Universities (South)

298

Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

121 (tie), Regional Universities (North)

280

Fort Hays State University (KS)

112 (tie), Regional Universities (Midwest)

270

Millersville University of Pennsylvania

96 (tie), Regional Universities (North)

268

Columbus State University (GA)

73 (tie), Regional Universities (South)

265

University of North Carolina--Pembroke

73 (tie), Regional Universities (South)

265

Edinboro University of Pennsylvania

131, Regional Universities (North)

257

University of Texas--Rio Grande Valley

284 (tie), National Universities

246

University of North Alabama

40 (tie), Regional Universities (South)

228

California State University--Fresno

196 (tie), National Universities

200

Cleveland State University

298-389, National Universities

197

Texas A&M University--Commerce

298-389, National Universities

193

Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania

88 (tie), Regional Universities (North)

174

Central Washington University

47 (tie), Regional Universities (West)

167

Texas A&M University--Kingsville

298-389, National Universities

165

Southern Arkansas University

99 (tie), Regional Universities (South)

158

CUNY--College of Staten Island

132 (tie), Regional Universities (North)

156

Michigan Technological University

153 (tie), National Universities

134

Lander University (SC)

41, Regional Colleges (South)

129

Northwestern State University of Louisiana

89 (tie), Regional Universities (South)

127

Texas Southern University

298-389, National Universities

111

Mississippi University for Women

47 (tie), Regional Universities (South)

88

Valdosta State University (GA)

298-389, National Universities

80

Southern Connecticut State University

121 (tie), Regional Universities (North)

54

Emporia State University (KS)

85, Regional Universities (Midwest)

53

Kentucky State University

36 (tie), Regional Colleges (South)

46

CUNY--Lehman College

56 (tie), Regional Universities (North)

40

Texas Tech University

217 (tie), National Universities

30

The honors colleges data above is correct as of Feb. 22, 2021. For complete financial aid data, full rankings and much more, access the U.S. News College Compass.

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