A Prudent College Path

CreditBen Wiseman

EVERY year the frenzy to get into highly selective colleges seems to intensify, and every year the news media finds and fawns over the rare students offered admission to all eight Ivy League schools. This year Ronald Nelson, from the Memphis area, was one of those who sopped up that adulation.

But his story had a fresh wrinkle. Nelson turned down Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the rest of them and chose instead to stay in the South, at the University of Alabama, where he’ll begin his studies later this month.

The lower price tag of Alabama, which is giving him a bounty of aid, was one reason. He also cited another: He’ll be taking classes at its honors college, which promises him an environment of especially dedicated, high-achieving students within a larger, more diverse community of more than 30,000 undergraduates.

Nelson’s decision taps into a striking development in higher education. 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.

The honors college at Alabama has been around only since 2003 and has grown steadily since then. It now includes more than 6,500 students. In a neighboring state, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga recently put the finishing touches on its own ambitious honors college.

There are dozens more honors colleges like these across the country, and while they’re hardly secrets, they don’t get quite the attention from college applicants — most notably from those fixated on the Ivy League and its ilk — that they deserve. Over the next few months, as accomplished high school seniors finalize the lists of where they’ll apply, they’d do well to consider the honors colleges at Alabama, at U.T.-Chattanooga or at other public universities.

And they’d be wise to consult a website and book that, surprisingly, fly somewhat under the radar in an era when applicants and their parents are hungrier than ever for any college-admissions resource that might help.

The book could use a title snappier and sexier than the one it has, “A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs.” It was first published in 2012 and updated last year. It’s linked to publicuniversityhonors.com, which began in 2011 and, like the book, provides thorough appraisals of individual honors colleges and programs and intelligent thoughts on how they fit into the higher-education landscape.

One recent post explores “College Value: Public Honors vs. Private Elites.” Another, “Honors and Career Success,” explains why a state university honors college or program might be the smartest of all options for some students.

“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.”

The honors colleges and programs to which he gives highest praise include the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University, which is widely considered the gold standard; Schreyer Honors College at Penn State; theSouth Carolina Honors College at the University of South Carolina; and thehonors program at the University of Kansas.

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.

In some instances, students are invited to step onto the honors track, based on the strength of their application to the wider university. In others, they must take it upon themselves to go through the extra paces and specific process of admission to an honors college.

There are a few reasons not to applaud these honors tracks. Some universities lavish disproportionate energy on them, eager for bragging rights and trying to draw students whose profiles may bolster the university’s stature and rankings, and they use financial aid money that could go to needier cases for honors college recruits. (Then again, private colleges intent on moving up in the rankings similarly use merit aid to compete for top students.)

ADDITIONALLY, honors colleges in some ways replicate, within a public school, the kind of stratified, status-conscious dynamic at play in the hierarchy of private schools.

But as Willingham rightly noted, the honors college cocoon isn’t as gilded as that of the most highly selective private colleges, which draw heavily from prep schools and affluent suburbs. And it’s part of a public university with considerable socioeconomic diversity.

Jonathan Fink, a vice president at Portland State University who successfully pushed for its honors program to become a full-fledged honors college, told me, “The students that P.S.U. draws are so different from the ones that my sister teaches at Mount Holyoke or that my other sister teaches at Sweet Briar.”

As a result, he said, P.S.U. arguably illuminates “more about the real world, which is the world you’ll ultimately be immersed in.”

“It gets you exposed to reality more,” he said, referring to the diversity that honors students at P.S.U. encounter. “The role that a place like P.S.U. plays is increasingly important as society becomes more economically split.”

Fink’s daughter graduated last year from Barrett at Arizona State. Its dean, Mark Jacobs, previously taught at a small private college in the Northeast. Fink noted that Jacobs “often talks about having been at Swarthmore and wishing he could have had Penn State next door — at A.S.U., he more or less got that.” Barrett combines the intimacy and academically distinguished student body of a Swarthmore with the scale, eclecticism and sprawling resources of a huge university. It’s two experiences in one.

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.

Robert Fisher, for example. A factory worker’s son who was the football captain and student body president at his high school in Clarksville, Tenn., he applied to a variety of schools in the state, including Vanderbilt, which rejected him. He ended up at U.T.-Chattanooga, on its honors track, which was his gateway to special summer internships in Washington for talented African-American students and to a 10-day cultural seminar in London. The seminar, he told me, was his first time out of the country.

He graduated last spring and will be back in England this fall — at Oxford University, as a Rhodes scholar.