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.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

6 Responses to Elite college versus public honors college

  1. pino says:

    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.

    Scrambling to a meeting but I like the gist.

    But I thought I read somewhere that career attainment is not dependent on what school you graduate from, rather what school you can get into.

    Our university system is very efficient at sorting kids by — call it cognitive ability — so that a kid that is accepted at Duke and goes to Duke will do equally well in life as the kid who is accepted to Duke and goes to, say, NC State.

    Being good at getting into top colleges means you are good at making money in your career.

  2. Jon K says:

    having attended an elite private boarding highschool (their tuition this year is on the order of 55,000 this year) and NCSU I agree with you about the differences in the quality of student peers. However, there are significant downsides to being a scholarship or middle class student at an elite institution. Those who are established as elite in the eyes of the school – either because of their extreme wealth, athletic ability, or family status – live in a world above everyone else. I am almost positive they benefit from opportunities that we scholarship kids never got. You could clearly see this in terms of who student leaders were, who made high honor roll (only 20 students on average out of each class were able to carry a 90+ average in every class), and in the way people were treated by peers and teachers.

    While I was able to establish a niche for myself, and got an excellent education that far exceeded that of what I could have experienced in any public school or most private day schools, I was always an outsider and had to accept there wasn’t anything I could do to change that. I didn’t have the money to go to Washington D.C. and spend 500 at Tyson’s Corner every weekend. My family didn’t have vacation houses at ski resorts that I could invite my friends to come hang out on weekends. It may have been worse because it was high school, but I felt at a significant disadvantage because my family only had upper middle class resources. My friends always used to remind me that I was ‘poor’. I really began to dislike certain aspects of elite culture.

    State is the complete opposite. I agree that the students aren’t as smart overall as they were in my highschool. I do miss being in classes where everyone is prepared, excited to be there, and everyone is more than capable of making astute comments in class. I do feel like there are enough motivated students in most of my classes to mitigate those that aren’t. I also feel like most of my professors do an excellent job of teaching, and I feel I have received a solid education. I don’t miss the excessive wealth on display or the elitist attitude. I am also glad that I don’t have any debt.

  3. ohwilleke says:

    Not sure that a honors college is a great replacement from a self-interested student’s perspective. Many top tier employers (such as investment banks and management consulting firms) care more about the school that you got your degree from than your actual educational experience. Elite private colleges are screening applicants for them and it is that sorting, more than what actually happens in classrooms, that matters to them. And, then there is the networking. The best way to join a social circle of rich people is to be there in an elite private college – even though there may be hurdles of social class to overcome, and that social circle has economic value. A social circle of smart middle class kids isn’t worthless, but doesn’t have the same economic value in any endeavor (like raising investment capital) where access to the world of the affluent matters.

    • Jon K says:

      I agree with some of what you said. If you want to work on Wall Street or a high powered law firm it is mandatory that you go to an elite school. I believe that is only a small subset of those that enter universities. The part I’m not sure about is how well middle class kids can develop the social connections you mention. Yes I had friends that were extremely wealthy and still maintain some of those connections. But outside of those friends most of the elitist people maintain very closed circles. If you don’t have the money to maintain that lifestyle it is pretty hard to fake it. Those people are very judgmental and if you can’t check off any of the boxes (wealth, family status, athletic ability, etc) Then most of those people write you off as an outsider and never give you a chance. That was my experience at least. It was the experience of other people I know who have been in similar situations. That is why it isn’t worth taking 200,000+ in student loans in order to put oneself into that environment. There is too much of risk that it won’t result in that elite job and then you are left with large obligations when you are just starting out.

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