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Honors Programs in Higher Education

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Honors programs are housed in many different types of institutions of higher education. In general, honors education consists of "the total means by which a college or university seeks to meet the educational needs of its ablest and most highly motivated students" (Austin, p. 5). The goals of honors programs usually include identifying and selecting highly able students; challenging those students academically and allowing them to exercise their potential; and, as the National Collegiate Honors Council website states, serving as a means by which to "raise the level of education … for all the students" by acting as an intellectual "laboratory." Institutional objectives for creating honors programs often include attracting and retaining students and faculty by displaying a "commitment to quality education," attracting funds, and "enhancing the public image of the institution as a place of superior scholarship" (Austin, p. 7). Not surprisingly, there are many different types of honors programs, often tailored to their specific types of institutions.

While Wesleyan University has had honors at graduation since 1873, and the University of Michigan (1873–1900), the University of Vermont (1888), Princeton (1905), Columbia (1920), and Harvard (1914) had some type of tutorial, exam, or thesis honors, fully developed honors education in America began in 1922 with the implementation of Frank Aydelotte's program at Swarthmore, which was modeled after the Oxford program of "pass/honors"–a system in which the only grades are pass, fail, or honors. In expectation of a student boom after World War II, Aydelotte felt that America's future depended on allowing gifted students to break out of the "academic lock step" through challenging courses of study that encouraged them to accept more freedom and responsibility and to develop their intellectual independence and initiative (Aydelotte, p. 15). Aydelotte's program allowed for greater student independence and specialization by replacing the traditional curriculum of the junior and senior years with unique "free-discussion" seminars with no attendance or hour requirements, culminating in a series of "less frequent, but more comprehensive" written and oral exams (Aydelotte, p. 37).

Subsequent to the success of the Swarthmore program, most universities developed honors programs–following either Swarthmore's plan of replacing the curriculum in its entirety, or using one of two other models: (1) honors work that replaced a specific number of courses, or (2) honors work as an extra activity beyond ordinary requirements for graduation. In 1928 Joseph W. Cohen, who developed an honors program for the University of Colorado, founded the Interuniversity Committee on Superior Students (ICSS). In 1966 the ICSS became the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC), which in the early twenty-first century has its own scholarly journal, numerous conventions, and publications, and also maintains a list of national and international honors programs, all available through their website.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there are almost as many different types of honors programs as there are institutions that create them. Still, as Clifford Adelman found in his 1985 study of postsecondary honors programs, there are "dominant models: the honors community, 'supply-side' honors, the 'exponential major' and general honors" (Adelman, p. 57). The honors community is a program that focuses on developing a "small select group of learners within an institution … tending to emphasize organization and support services over curriculum" (Adelman, p. 57). In supply-side honors, students are selected at different stages of their college careers and the emphasis lies on the programs–with variety viewed as the key to student demand and achievement. The exponential major is an honors version of a traditional major, and is usually open to students after their first year of college. It focuses on a coherent thematic or disciplinary program. The general honors model is an "interdisciplinary General Education program, confined to the first two years of college, and with a heavy emphasis on the traditional Liberal Arts" (Adelman, p. 57). In addition to these models, there are programs of independent study and mentor research participation, which involve close relationships with individual faculty members and often culminate in a senior honors thesis or creative project. Regardless of type, honors programs tend to emphasize selectivity and active student participation as customary characteristics, with many programs embracing the goal of producing "a knowledgeable and effective person" (Austin, p. 8).

While honors education has been plagued by accusations of elitism since its inception, this question became even more pressing with the spread of honors programs to community colleges in the early 1980s, particularly since community colleges have often been seen as serving diverse, and usually less-prepared, populations. Recent studies have found, however, that approximately 20 percent of community college students are "high-ability" students who are likely to benefit significantly from honors programs. In light of this, there has been growing recognition that honors programs play an important role in serving the diverse population of community colleges, which includes gifted students who are attending community college because of lower tuition, convenience, or for a variety of other reasons.

The goals of community college honors programs are very similar to those of four-year institutions. One role that honors programs serve in community colleges is facilitating students' transfer to first-rate baccalaureate programs, which helps to bolster the reputation of both community colleges and community college students. This is especially important in education systems such as the City University of New York (CUNY) that link community colleges and senior colleges.

Regardless of their design, most honors programs have at their core the goal of encouraging high levels of excellence in talented and motivated students. To support this goal, the NCHC urges all honors programs to have an articulated mission statement, to employ a director that reports to the chief academic officer of the institution, to occupy suitable quarters, to promote student liaisons with other committees, to offer special academic counseling, and to maintain continuous and critical program review.


ADELMAN, CLIFFORD. 1985. Starting with Students: Promising Approaches in American Higher Education. National Commission on Excellence in Education. National Institute of Education. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

AUSTIN, GREY C. 1986. "Orientation to Honors Education." In Fostering Academic Excellence Through Honors Programs, ed. Kenneth E. Eble. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

AYDELOTTE, FRANK. 1944. Breaking the Lock Step: The Development of Honors Work in American Colleges and Universities. New York: Harper.

BYRNE, JOSEPH P. 1988. Honors Programs in Community Colleges: A Review of Recent Issues and Literature. ERIC document ED 417785.


NATIONAL COLLEGIATE HONORS COUNCIL. 1994. "Basic Characteristics of a Fully-Developed Honors Program." <>.




L. Thomas Hopkins (1889–1982) [next] [back] Honor Societies - Alpha Mu Gamma, Alpha Omega Alpha, Association For Women In Communications, Association Of College Honor Societies - ALPHA CHI

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