If you want a solid alternative to the elite private college experience without the $230,000 price tag, then public college honors programs warrant consideration.

Though honors programs within many public colleges have been around for years, including University of Michigan’s LSA Honors Program, and University of Virginia’s Echols Scholars Program, many students and their families are unaware of the opportunities honors programs provide.

The National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) describes an honors program as a small college within the bountiful resources of a large university that provides personal attention, top faculty, scintillating seminars, numerous research opportunities, internships and oftentimes scholarship money.

Public University Honors (PUH) provides criteria to measure the overall excellence of an honors program. Listed in order of importance: the number of honors classes necessary to fulfill graduation requirements (the more the better); prestigious scholarships (Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright, Truman, etc.) awarded honors participants; special honors housing; select honors study abroad programs; and priority registration.

With this criteria in hand, PUH recently ranked honors programs, noting that among the top programs, distinctions were slight. For example, differentiating among housing on campuses quickly becomes subjective. In any case, among the larger honors programs (those with more than 1,800 students) the top five were:

1. University of Michigan, LSA Honors Program

2. Arizona State University, Barrett Honors College

3. University of Georgia, Honors Program

4. Penn State University, Schreyer Honors College

5. University of Minnesota, Honors Program

While Arizona State’s (ASU) regular undergraduate school accepts 89% of applicants, and is best known for its Earth Sciences Department, which ranks 17th nationally, ASU’s Barrett Honors Program requires a minimum SAT score of 1300 (out of 1600), or an ACT composite of 29, a GPA of 3.75+ (unweighted) and an essay. In other words, Barrett is one of the most select colleges in the country set within a mega university.

Arizona State’s honors program was created by the Arizona Board of Regents in 1988 as one of the first eminent honors programs in the country. After a $10 million gift to ASU from Craig Barrett, the then CEO of Intel, and his wife, who was an ASU alumna, the Honors College assumed Barrett’s name. The Barrett campus comprises seven residence halls all of which have classrooms for seminars and classes held exclusively for honors students.

Looking at the PUH criteria for overall excellence, Barrett’s Honors Program satisfies all of them. Freshmen entering Barrett’s Honors Program are required to take 30% of their total graduation credits in honors courses. This ensures rigor and more access to smaller class sizes and faculty. Additionally, the Barrett Honors students are among the best in the country. ASU was awarded 26 student Fulbright scholarships for 2013-2014. That is third among all the colleges in the country, just behind Harvard and the University of Michigan. Barrett also leads in recruiting National Merit Finalists: In 2006, it had more 180 National Merit Scholars enroll.

Barrett Honors students also have access to dedicated Honors Faculty Fellows along with more than 1,400 honors faculty across all the ASU colleges. Its housing is spacious and central, the dining hall offers exceptional range and quality, while the Honors Hall contains its own exercise gym, coffee shop, computer lab and lounge area. Beyond this, Barrett has a three-pronged advisory system, exceptional research opportunities and funding and even its own endowment.

Despite all this, Barrett gets no respect. Among the top 50 public  programs of its kind, it is perceived as 48th on the list, according to PUH. However, when measured by students for overall excellence, it always ranks among the top three.

If you are feeling alienated and underappreciated by the run for the Ivies or other highly selective schools dotted across the country, public universities might prove to be an antidote. Apply, visit and consider them. They might be the perfect alternative to launch you toward your own drive for excellence.

Ralph Becker, founder of Ivy College Prep, LLC and a resident of Long Beach, has been counseling students for the last 9 years. A former Yale Alumni interviewer, he holds a certificate in college counseling from UCLA Extension, and has published SAT* Vocab 800 Books A, B, C, & D.

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