National Collegiate Honors Council


Characteristics of the 21st-Century Honors College

Andrew J. Cognard-Black, St. Mary's College of Maryland
Patricia J. Smith, University of Central Arkansas

Copyright 2023, National Collegiate Honors Council. Used by permission


Today, honors education can be found in almost every corner of U.S. higher education. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there also has been significant growth in the number of honors colleges in the United States, but there have been limited data to describe with any precision how fast that growth has been. Sederberg (2005, 2008) was among the first to document the emergence and growth of a distinct honors college organizational form and to identify unique characteristics that distinguish honors colleges from honors programs, but further growth within the organizational field of higher education necessitates an updated profile of honors colleges. This chapter presents results from the 2021 Census of U.S. Honors Colleges. We identified all known honors colleges in the United States and conducted an omnibus survey of honors college leaders. We used data from the survey to create one of the most complete statistical profiles of honors colleges to date, including information on leadership characteristics and student demographics; institutional size and structural features; admissions criteria, acceptance rates, and yield rates; honors curricula; and resources such as facilities, personnel, budgets, and endowments. We find that the number of honors colleges at American universities has more than doubled (140% increase) in the past two decades. While there are significant tendencies toward institutional isomorphism among honors colleges, we also find significant variation across honors colleges depending on institutional mission (i.e., Carnegie Classification) and whether they have more autonomous, free-standing structure within their own institutional context.