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Elite college versus public honors college

Interesting column from Frank Bruni arguing that the wise path for bright and ambitious college students is an honors college within a public university rather than attending an elite university.  Assuming you will be paying less for that public education, Bruni is definitely on point:

More and more public schools are starting, expanding, refining and successfully promoting honors programs, and particularly honors colleges, that give students some of the virtues and perks of private schools without some of the drawbacks, such as exorbitant tuition and an enclave of extreme privilege…

“Because of the broader student body at a public university, there’s a lot more reach in terms of the type of people you’re going to encounter,” John Willingham, the author of the book and the architect of the website, told me.

And it’s likely that at a public university’s honors college, there will be a smaller percentage of students from extremely wealthy families than at one of the most highly selective private schools.

“They’re not all elite,” Willingham said, referring to honors college students, “though most are capable. There’s a more egalitarian quality.”

Generally speaking, honors programs give students who’ve distinguished themselves through their SAT scores, ACT scores or grade-point averages access to, and dibs on, small classes filled with other honors students. Honors colleges are essentially more formal, larger versions of honors programs, and there are often extra resources, even designated buildings and residences, for their students…

Perhaps most important, honors colleges provide a supportive, challenging haven to some gifted young men and women who don’t make the cut at private schools with plunging acceptance rates or who aren’t prepared, for financial and other reasons, to pursue higher education far from their homes.

I would be very happy for any of my kids to attend an honors program at one of our fine UNC-system schools, but let’s be clear– an elite private education, it ain’t.  I’ve mentioned many times that I think an elite undergraduate education– like the one I had at Duke– just cannot be justified for the cost.  It’s not that much better than what you get at a top-notch public university.  That said, it is better and an Honors program just doesn’t make that much difference.

Our NCSU honors program is in the book of 50 honors programs mentioned in the column, but it’s certainly not like attending an elite college.  Yes, you get some great honors classes, but those are a small part of the overall curriculum.  The honors students are great, but they spend most of their time and coursework surrounded by less intelligent, less motivated peers.  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: being surrounded by a large coterie of similarly bright and ambitious peers is the real value of an elite private university (and the lack of socio-economic diversity of them is certainly a downside).  If price is no object (i.e., you are really rich or have a great scholarship or aid package), you just cannot replicate that with an honors program. Of course, price is an object for most people so those honors programs are a great alternative.  Having been on both sides of the matter, though, I just couldn’t let Bruni’s column go by without clarifying things.

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