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Should I Participate in an Honors Program, or Attend a More Competitive College?

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A common decision high-achieving students are faced with when trying to choose a school is whether to attend a competitive, highly-ranked university, or attend a less competitive or well-known university as a member of an honors program. Neither option is without its pros and cons, and students can sometimes struggle to decide which choice is ultimately best for them.


As always, we at CollegeVine are here to help you make the best-informed decision possible! Read on for a breakdown of what honors programs are, their pros and cons, and how participation in an honors program stacks up against attending a more competitive college.


What is an Honors Program?


An honors program is a program designed to attract the best and brightest students to a university. Thousands of campuses across the country feature honors programs, from state flagship universities to Ivy Leagues.


These programs vary from campus to campus, but usually include enhanced opportunities for research, special classes or events, priority access to class registration and advising appointments, and often some sort of financial incentive – usually in the form of scholarship money, research or internship grants. In addition, many honors programs also feature separate housing for students in the program.


What are the Pros and Cons of an Honors Program?


The purpose of honors programs is to draw students to the university whose stats (test scores, GPA, etc.) are higher than that of the average admit. Accordingly, the resources available to these students are greater than those of a typical student.


Pro: Personalized Attention


Perhaps the greatest advantage of honors programs is the additional personalized attention their members enjoy. At large colleges, it’s easy to feel like you’re falling through the cracks, but benefits like early class registration allow students to circumvent much of the frustration and bureaucracy that typically accompany student life. Given what a nightmare class registration can be under normal circumstances, or how difficult it can be to schedule an appointment with an advisor, having priority access to such services can actually save you a good deal of stress.


Pro: Resources and Events


In addition, the resources and events provided to students in honors programs can greatly enhance your educational experience. Many programs offer special speaker events, outings, research and grant opportunities, and other benefits to students in honors programs that allow them to broaden the scope of their education beyond what most of their peers experience.


Pro: Financial Incentives


There are often financial incentives for participating in an honors program as well. Admittance to these programs usually includes a generous merit aid prize, in addition to extra opportunities for grants or summer funding. Even schools that don’t offer merit aid can work some financial perk into their honors program: for example, students selected for Columbia’s Undergraduate Scholars Program (CUSP) who are on financial aid have the work study component of their aid package replaced with grants.


Con: Reputation and Prestige


Despite their various perks, however, there are some drawbacks to opting for participation in an honors program at less selective or well-known school. The main drawback is the most obvious one; even if the selection criteria for an honors program are stiffer than those at a more famous or competitive college, employers and the like will probably fail to make this distinction. As vexing as it may be, big-name colleges continue to hold the most weight in some employers’ eyes.


Con: Separation


Additionally, being a part of an honors program can cause students to feel a sense of separation from their classmates. Given that they are afforded unique privileges, invited to exclusive events, and sometimes even housed in specific dormitories, it’s easy to understand how participating students may not feel completely integrated into the campus community.


What are the Pros and Cons of Choosing a More Selective University Over an Honors Program?


While the college rankings on sites like the US News and World Report may seem a bit arbitrary, the truth is that the universities that are considered “top tier” have rightfully earned that designation.


Pro: Opportunities and Resources


Schools like the Ivy Leagues, Stanford, and MIT all boast world-class faculty, unique opportunities for research or internships, and a variety of lively, engaging student groups and events. Furthermore, the most competitive universities also often have the largest endowments – meaning they award the most generous financial aid packages. Consequently, if you choose to attend a competitive university, chances are the opportunities and resources available to you certainly won’t be scant.


Pro: Prestige


The weight that competitive schools’ names carry also can be an advantage to prospective students. If a college has a reputation for only admitting its country or state’s best students, employers tend to regard alumni or current students in a more favorable light.


Con: Bigger student populations


However, for all their benefits, competitive universities suffer from many of the same issues as all other universities. Large numbers of students vie for attention and resources from a limited number of faculty and administrative staff. Especially at universities without billion-dollar endowments or startlingly low student-faculty ratios, it’s easy to feel like you’re just one student among thousands, and competition for research funding or the process of selecting housing can be exhausting.


Con: The Price


Top schools can also be extremely expensive. Out-of-state tuition at UC Berkeley, the nation’s top public college, is over $50,000; at some private colleges, this figure grows by over $20,000. Though many schools offer great financial aid, it’s not always sufficient to cover all expenses. In contrast, the merit aid and other financial incentives that typically accompany honors programs can cover up to 100% of the cost of attendance at some schools.


As with all the decisions you have to make when choosing a college, there’s a lot to consider when deciding between an honors program and a more competitive or higher-ranked college. No school or program is the same, so it’s up to you to do your research and evaluate what both options offer you.


Get in contact with current students, take a campus tour, speak to admissions representatives – firsthand accounts of students who have taken advantage of an honors program’s opportunities or who have fallen in love with their school without participating such a program can offer a fresh, realistic perspective on what can feel like an impossible decision. With proper research and our guide, you’ll be well on your way to committing to the college that’s perfect for you!


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Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor

Short Bio
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.