The business model of a profitable school, though, says bigger is better, and many students are content with a degree without the rigor of a smaller, more challenging school.
The happy medium? Big schools generally have honors colleges.
An honors college is like a smaller college within the university. It offers the smaller class sizes, including lecture courses, and faculty that can deliver the level of intellectual rigor that can attract a top student.
Most overcrowded universities want top students. They have a harder time attracting them, though, because there are advantages that smaller, often private colleges have where students work directly with professors in small groups. That’s especially important if you have to get the mentoring and the recommendations to move you up the line to important people in your chosen field. Eighteen to twenty-four professors can’t give much personalized attention to 1,000 to 2,000 students.
That’s not to say that you can’t get off to graduate school or med school at a large university. It’s just a lot harder to get what you need, given the real student-to-professor ratio. Remember that’s different than a student-to-teacher ratio, which many big colleges advertise. The difference? The second number includes grad students and virtual teachers who aren’t professors.
It’s good to check on outcomes, how many people go off to higher ed in that department/field, and preferably where they go. A school with good outcomes is happy to tell you about them.
WHERE IT IS USEFUL
If you are on a state prepaid plan, or a state-funded scholarship program that must be used at one of their schools, but size is a problem, the Honors College offers an opportunity to students with excellent GPAs in high school to get an education that will give them access to faculty similar to a small liberal arts college.
Understand how each honors college works. All are different. Some, you never take classes outside of the honors college. Some you take classes at an upper level where the classroom sizes are smaller. There are a few honor programs, though, that require you to still take a few oversized lecture hall classes in the larger university in your freshman and sophomore years. That’s a danger, because a bad grade in a freshman 101 course with 1000 students in it, and five to ten grad students teaching section break-outs can land you a C in your freshman year that can haunt you when you apply for graduate schools.
Always know the details of how they operate their school within the school.
Honors colleges generally operate at the same academic and testing requirements as the smaller colleges with which they compete. That’s to say that the GPAs and test scores are similar to other schools seeking top students.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Honors Colleges have their own websites. Go through them. Check the coursework and the faculty. Ask a lot of questions about advisors and class sizes and outcomes. How many of their students go on to get a masters? A terminal degree? (Ph.D., J.D., M.D. etc.) Who teaches there? If you visit the HC, ask a professor or two why they teach there, and what they want to bring to students that differs from the regular university.
HOW YOU APPLY
For most schools, the Honors Colleges are a separate application. Usually you find it by searching for the honors college on the school’s website, and clicking on the application information page. For some, you apply to the main college and write a supplemental application for the HC.