Every year the frenzy to get into highly selective colleges seems to intensify, and every year the 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 was one reason. But he also cited his admission to its honors college, which promises him an environment of dedicated, high-achieving students within a larger, more diverse community.
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 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 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 the attention 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, UT-Chattanooga and other public universities.
“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 “A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs,” told me. “They’re not all elite ... There’s a more egalitarian quality.”
Generally speaking, honors programs give students access to and dibs on small classes filled with other honors students. Honors colleges are more formal programs with additional resources like designated buildings and residences for students.
There are a few reasons not to applaud these honors tracks. Some universities lavish disproportionate energy on them, eager for bragging rights and students who may bolster the university’s rankings.
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.
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.
Robert Fisher, for example. A factory worker’s son who was the football captain and student body president at his high school in Tennessee, he applied to a variety of schools in the state, including Vanderbilt, which rejected him. He ended up at UT-Chattanooga, on its honors track, which was his gateway to special summer internships in Washington for talented African-American students and 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.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.