The Best Deals in Public Education Honors programs offer Ivy League quality at state school prices.
By Lesley Alderman

(MONEY Magazine) – CHECK OFF THE THINGS YOU'RE LOOKING FOR IN A COLLEGE: -- SMALL CLASSES -- TOPFLIGHT PROFESSORS -- THE CHANCE TO DO INDEPENDENT RESEARCH -- PLENTY OF PERSONAL ATTENTION -- ROCK-BOTTOM TUITION -- ALL OF THE ABOVE If that sounds like an impossible wish list, you're in for a surprise. There is a place where you can get it all -- and more. In fact, there are 436 such places -- the honors programs at state universities. "The impression is still that you have to go to a small private school to get a personalized education," says Julia Bondanella, president-elect of the National Collegiate Honors Council. "That's not necessarily true when you look at what an honors program has to offer." Instead of lecture classes with 500 students or more, honors students attend seminars with no more than 20 classmates. Honors students go on exotic field trips, such as the University of Georgia outing pictured above. They're taught by top professors, not teaching assistants. They can confer with special faculty advisers on which courses to take, and they can conduct advanced research with senior faculty. And honors students often enjoy other perks as well, such as priority registration, eligibility for special scholarships and their own lounges and libraries. Best of all, they pay the same for tuition, fees, room and board as other undergrads in the state system -- an average $5,656 for state residents yearly -- rather than the typical private-school charges of $12,874. But as you probably suspect, there's a catch: Getting into the best honors programs can be as tough as cracking the Ivy League. Typically, you must be in the top 10% of your high school class and have SAT scores of about 1,200. Leap those hurdles, though, and you're in. Yes, some honors programs require an application essay and letters of recommendation; in practice, however, anyone (including out-of-staters) who meets the minimum requirements is automatically accepted. In dozens of interviews with educators, the eight programs profiled here (in alphabetical order) were named repeatedly as being among the best in the nation.


UNDERGRADUATES: 29,500. HONORS ENROLLMENT: 1,100. HONORS ENTRANCE REQUIREMENTS: SAT, 1,275; ACT, 29; TOP 5% OF HIGH SCHOOL CLASS. TUITION AND FEES: $1,778 FOR RESIDENTS, $7,284 FOR NONRESIDENTS. On the sprawling 640-acre central ASU campus, honors students have a place to call their own: McClintock Hall, which houses the program's administrative offices and classrooms, as well as dorm rooms for 180 students. McClintock also has two lounges, cooking and laundry facilities and a computer lab with 23 personal computers hooked into the university's mainframe. Each week, 40 to 60 students talk over lunch about contemporary issues (political, philosophical or moral) with Dean Ted Humphrey, the program's director. In addition, each university department has an academic adviser who works solely with honors students. "The honors staff totally caters to us," says sophomore ; Renee Larson, 19. "They'll help you with your schedule, give you advice on good professors and always take time for you." Qualified students may simply sign up for particular honors courses -- almost all are enriched versions of standard classes -- or they may pursue an honors degree, for which they must complete 12 honors courses, maintain an overall grade point average (GPA) of 3.4 and write a senior thesis.


UNDERGRADUATES: 26,955. HONORS ENROLLMENT: 2,200. HONORS ENTRANCE REQUIREMENTS: SAT, 1,250; ACT, 30; TOP 8% OF HIGH SCHOOL CLASS. TUITION AND FEES: $2,638 FOR RESIDENTS, $8,630 FOR NONRESIDENTS. Indiana's ambitious honors program emphasizes both high-octane traditional courses and unconventional extras. Each year, the administration builds 20 to 30 events around a special theme. The topic for 1992-93 was "Race, Gender, Generation: How Can We Learn to Get Along?" Events included a conference, "Democracy and Difference," and a lecture and video presentation by a member of the Afro-American studies department on "Race, Rap and Reality." Most honors classes at the freshman and sophomore levels are small seminars, with fewer than 20 students -- a welcome alternative to the 100- to 400- student lecture courses that underclassmen usually take. Junior and senior honors students move on to independent study projects and internships. The 200 or so students who earn honors degrees each year must complete 18 hours of honors courses and earn GPAs of 3.4 or higher. Honors students are eligible for 150 special scholarships of $500 to $5,000, awarded on the basis of high school GPAs and SAT or ACT scores and extracurricular activities.


UNDERGRADUATES: 29,109. HONORS ENROLLMENT: 835. HONORS ENTRANCE REQUIREMENTS: SAT, 1,300; ACT, 30; TOP 5% OF HIGH SCHOOL CLASS. TUITION AND FEES: $4,032 FOR RESIDENTS, $9,882 FOR NONRESIDENTS. At Michigan's 37-year-old Honors College -- one of the oldest programs -- high-caliber students design their own courses of study and sidestep the university's distribution requirements. "We are very friendly toward unconventional approaches," says program director Donald Lammers. Each year honors students must submit personal academic plans. At least twice a year, they have to discuss their progress with their advisers. All students must work toward honors degrees, which require eight honors courses or their equivalent (such as a graduate-level course) and a GPA of 3.2 or better. And they must do independent research; each year, about 15 win stipends of $500 to $600 for travel and other expenses related to their projects. In addition, ambitious students may apply for one of two $2,000 summer research grants. In 1992, Kelland Thomas, 20, a senior majoring in music performance, used his summer stipend to study music composed in Nazi concentration camps.


UNDERGRADUATES: 29,898. HONORS ENROLLMENT: 1,269. HONORS ENTRANCE REQUIREMENTS: SAT, 1,300. TUITION AND FEES: $4,618 FOR RESIDENTS, $9,644 FOR NONRESIDENTS. To foster a sense of community among the students in the university scholars program on Penn State's 540-acre urban campus, the school stages more than 100 lectures, field trips and other special events exclusively for them during the year. In addition, about 560 students choose to live in the honors residence, Atherton Hall, or Beaver Hall, where one fioor is set aside for them. Atherton is equipped with a computer lab, two music practice rooms, a small library and the Grandfather Clock lounge. All of Penn State's university scholars are expected to earn honors degrees. Freshmen and sophomores must take three honors courses each year; juniors and seniors are required to take a total of 14 honors credit hours during their last two years. Students must also maintain GPAs of at least 3.2 and write senior theses. Scholars receive many benefits usually reserved for graduate students, such as permission to take out as many as 200 library books and keep them for a full semester. In addition, they can plug into the university's mainframe computer. A special winter study course takes about 20 of the scholars to London, where they may either work on independent research or participate in a theater study program. Last year, the course director arranged for a student studying megalithic architecture to gain access to the restricted stone circle at Stonehenge.


UNDERGRADUATES: 20,500. HONORS ENROLLMENT: 1,000. HONORS ENTRANCE REQUIREMENTS: SAT, 1,200; ACT, 30; HIGH SCHOOL GPA OF 3.5 TO 4. TUITION AND FEES: $2,250 FOR RESIDENTS, $5,940 FOR NONRESIDENTS. Georgia's honors program attracts some of the state's brightest students. Says Chaly Joe Wright, 22, who graduated in June with a degree in environmental science: "The education is equivalent to what you can get at Vanderbilt or Emory, but half the price." About 150 honors courses offered each year cover the same material as standard classes but entail more reading and tougher exams. All students are expected to complete one of three degrees: highest honors, which requires 12 honors courses and a 3.9 GPA; high honors (12 courses and a 3.5 GPA); and general honors (nine courses and a 3.3 GPA). The program doesn't have its own building, but it does have a special place in the hearts of university officials. Last year, when the university budget was cut 5%, forcing the elimination of some courses, the honors division was asked to scale back only 2.5%, and no courses were dropped. "We consider it one of the best things we have in our undergraduate education," says Wyatt Anderson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.


UNDERGRADUATES: 12,000. HONORS ENROLLMENT: 700. HONORS ENTRANCE REQUIREMENTS: SAT, 1,200; ACT, 30; TOP 10% OF HIGH SCHOOL CLASS. TUITION AND FEES: $4,546 FOR RESIDENTS, $9,690 FOR NONRESIDENTS. Pitt's honors students can dabble in the division or plunge in deeply. While they must maintain GPAs of at least 3.25, they need not take a minimum number of courses. About seven to 10 ambitious students a year design their own courses of study with faculty advisers that prepare them to write senior theses leading to honors degrees. The students must present their theses to faculty and outside experts for approval, just as they would if they were working toward master's degrees. First-year students can join the Fessenden engineering program, in which they take a full slate of honors courses in the sciences and humanities and meet each week over pizza to hear lectures by practicing engineers or discuss novels and plays with scientific themes. One recent example: Friedrich Durrenmatt's play, The Physicist. "It's one of the most demanding and stimulating honors options available," says Dean Alec Stewart. Special activities for honors students, such as Friday afternoon lectures by star faculty members, take place at the Honors Center, on the top fioor of Pitt's main academic building, the 36-story Cathedral of Learning. The center also houses a reading room and lounge for honors students.


UNDERGRADUATES: 23,000. HONORS ENROLLMENT: 1,030. HONORS ENTRANCE , REQUIREMENTS: SAT OF 1,400 WITH HIGH SCHOOL GPA OF 3, AND 830 WITH A GPA OF 4; ACT OF 32 AND GPA OF 3 OR ACT OF 21 AND GPA OF 4. TUITION AND FEES: $2,015 FOR RESIDENTS, $6,075 FOR NONRESIDENTS. The University of Utah's innovative honors courses are not simply enriched versions of regular classes; they are specially designed, cross-disciplinary offerings. Two examples: "Who Gets Ahead in America" and "Race, Gender and Knowledge." In addition, director Richard Cummings reaches outside the schools -- and outside of academe -- for teachers. For example, while he was still in office, former Gov. Norman Bangerter taught a class called "The Governor's Government and the New Century" for 10 years. (New governor Mike Leavitt, who unseated Bangerter in last November's election, is expected to continue the tradition.) And in an unusual twist, extra-industrious seniors may develop honors courses of their own -- and teach them to other honors students for credit. Last year, for example, senior Trevor Elkington taught an English course called "Culture and the Epic Tradition: Blood, Sex and the Gods," with a reading list that included Beowulf and Gilgamesh. The university provides three scholarship programs for honors students, including the Sweet Candy Co. endowment, which awards as much as $2,000 to three students each year. Students must maintain a 3.4 GPA to stay in the honors program, and they must complete eight honors courses in several subject areas for honors degrees. Biology major Victoria Allen, 23, pictured on page 29, enjoyed honors courses as an alternative to her science requirements, which were heavily laden with formulas and equations. "The classes always had stimulating intellectual discussions that drew on events from the real world," she says.


UNDERGRADUATES: 13,767. HONORS ENROLLMENT: 686. HONORS ENTRANCE REQUIREMENTS: 3.8 GPA. TUITION AND FEES: $2,326 FOR RESIDENTS, $6,550 FOR NONRESIDENTS. The campus of Washington State University, located in the rolling Palouse Hills and surrounded by wheatfields, is home to one of the oldest and best- known honors programs in the country. Started in 1960, the program is highly structured, providing students with a set path of study with very few options. "We expect students to do their own thinking," says director Dr. Vahtu Bhatia, "not their own thing." The schedule of studies prescribes 11 courses, including one year of Western civilization and English literature and at least one seminar. All students work toward honors degrees, which require a senior thesis. The Honors Center, in Bryan Hall, the campus' main building, houses the administrative support staff, a 5,000-volume library, a reading room and a lounge with book lockers, computers and typewriters. There is no honors residence hall. The honors program offers approximately 100 scholarships each year worth as much as $2,000. The honors courses shun surveys of subjects; rather than brush quickly over European history, for example, a course might focus solely on the French Revolution. The program encourages students to learn foreign languages and immerse themselves in another country's culture. Students may also spend a semester abroad at special programs at universities in Denmark, India or Wales. "Education is about letting light into one's brain,'' says Bhatia. "In honors, we hope to let in light in a variety of colors."