Bronwyn Stippa had all but made up her mind to attend New York University, a top-notch private college. A campus visit to the University of Vermont, where she had been accepted to a new honors college, was just a favor to her parents.
"I came up and it was just mind-blowing," she said. "I totally did a 180." Vermont promised her access to top professors and special courses, and a financial aid package that dwarfed NYU's. Since she enrolled, Vermont has also shown it can push her just as hard as any private college.
"Coming here, I figured I would have to challenge myself more, that it would be maybe easier than going to NYU," said Stippa, a freshman from Coxsackie, N.Y. "I'm realizing that's not the case at all."
Trying to lure students such as Stippa, public universities around the country are rapidly developing honors colleges that advertise the cozy qualities of a liberal arts college within the walls of a university.
Some honors colleges have been around for decades, but the majority have cropped up since the mid-1990s, when competition for students sharpened and ambitious presidents embraced honors colleges as a way to raise their profiles. Vermont's opened this fall; City University of New York and Miami Dade College, until recently a two-year school, are among others created in recent years.
Yet the rapid expansion has raised concerns about how honors colleges fit into the mission of state universities, and about whether some schools are rushing them out in response to competitive pressure.
For students, an honors college can be the educational equivalent of an upgrade to first class from coach -- smaller classes, priority scheduling, research opportunities and a residence hall in which they can rub shoulders with fellow overachievers. Not infrequently, it's a personal call from the university president that persuades them to attend.
Honors colleges also are popular with donors. In 2000, Intel CEO Craig Barrett and his wife Barbara donated $10 million to Arizona State's; today the university has 482 National Merit Scholars on campus, compared with four when the honors college opened in 1988. At the University of Arkansas, two-thirds of a $300 million gift from the Walton family (of Wal-Mart fame) was used to support an honors college.
But while generally welcomed, the spread of such programs has led to questions about the expense showered on a few students. On the other end, some worry universities are not spending enough, rolling out honors colleges that do not supply the resources to provide a truly distinctive experience.
Another worry is simply how to define "honors college."
Generally, honors colleges are more comprehensive and separate from the rest of the university than an "honors program," but they vary in scope. The National Collegiate Honors Council plans next month to discuss several possible steps, including accreditation, that could help narrow the definition of an "honors college."
"We're concerned with the phenomenon," said Peter Sederberg, dean of the Honors College at the University of South Carolina. "You are presenting yourself to the public as having something more than an honors program, and no one has really articulated what that 'more' ought to be."
Nobody appears sure how many honors colleges there are. For a recent survey, Sederberg counted about 60 universities among the membership of the NCHC claiming to be an honors college. But he has heard estimates that as many as 200 use the designation.
Sederberg believes a true honors college should have certain characteristics, such as a separate application, an administrator who carries the title of dean and a residential component. But his survey results revealed that even some of the NCHC's honors colleges do not meet all of those proposed definitions.
"It's a matter of truth in advertising," Sederberg said. "It ought to mean something substantively, and not just a flashy new brochure."
But Sederberg acknowledges even true honors colleges are not necessarily superior to the honors programs at many schools; they are just different. Ohio State's honors program offers its 5,500 students special classes, access to $500,000 in research grants, housing and priority scheduling (which prompted protests from non-honors students two years ago). The average OSU honors student scores 29.9 on the ACT admissions test, more than four points higher than the school average.
Not all honors colleges are trying to poach students from top private schools; many are just trying to improve the intellectual atmosphere on campus and help retain faculty members, who usually like teaching better students. Cleveland State, a commuter school, welcomed its first group of 40 to a new honors program this fall. It has few of the characteristics of a separate college but has plans to add some, such as housing.
For universities, such programs are not cheap, although their costs are not always apparent. At the University of South Carolina, Psychology 101 sections have 300 students, but an honors section is capped at 40. The university does not have to hire more teachers, but non-honors students are stuck with bigger classes.
Those effects trouble some experts.
"I find it interesting that institutions that are founded for the public good are trying to get more and more selective," said George Dehne, a marketing consultant to a number of private colleges, which he acknowledged are facing increased competition from many such programs. "Are they supposed to educate the best and the brightest, or are they supposed to educate the populace?"
Supporters say educating the best and the brightest helps educate everyone else.
"You want to use the most committed students to help set the tone for the university," said Robert Taylor, dean of the honors college at Vermont. He pointed out that honors students there will still take numerous classes with non-honors students.
Sederberg said that state universities have a duty to educate high-achieving students who cannot afford private schools.
"We were set up to serve first and foremost the interests of citizens of the state, and those are not one-size-fits-all," he said.
Still, extra financial aid and resources cannot convince every student that a state school can replicate the coziness of a liberal arts college. Courtney Rogers turned down a scholarship to the University of Arkansas Honors College -- not even a meeting with the chancellor could sway her -- to attend the more expensive Hendrix College in Conway, Ark.
"I wanted to experience people who were as serious about what I was doing as I am," Rogers said. Now a junior, she says her choice really paid off last year when a Hendrix alumnus called her chemistry professor looking for a summer intern to work at Merck, the pharmaceutical company. The professor recommended Rogers, and she worked there last summer, with plans to return next year.
"They don't come to Arkansas to recruit interns," Rogers said. "I just don't think I would have gotten that sort of recognition if I'd been in a much bigger class. My professor knew me; he knew my goals; he knew I was right for the job."