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When Do Honors Programs Make the Grade? Conditional Effects on College Satisfaction, Achievement, Retention, and Graduation

Abstract

Many people within and outside of higher education view honors programs as providing meaningful academic experiences that promote learning and growth for high-achieving students. To date, the research exploring the link between honors participation and college grades and retention has obtained mixed results; some of the seemingly conflicting findings may stem from the presence of methodological limitations, including the difficulty with adequately accounting for selection into honors programs. In addition, virtually no research has explored the conditions under which honors programs are most strongly related to desired outcomes. To provide a rigorous examination of the potential impact of this experience, this study conducted propensity score analyses with a large, multi-institutional, longitudinal sample of undergraduates at 4-year institutions. In the full sample, honors participation predicts greater college GPA and 4-year graduation, while it is unrelated to college satisfaction and retention. However, these results differ notably by institutional selectivity: Honors participation is associated with greater college GPA, retention to the third and fourth years of college, and 4-year graduation at less selective institutions, but it is significantly related only to GPA at more selective institutions. These relationships are also sometimes larger among students from historically underrepresented groups.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    In this paper, the term “honors programs” will be used to describe academic initiatives that include department-based programs (e.g., “departmental honors”), institution-wide programs (e.g., “college honors”), and entire colleges within a university (which represents a broader organizational structure). The National Collegiate Honors Council (2017) describes “honors education” as being “characterized by in-class and extracurricular activities that are broader, deeper, or more complex than comparable learning experiences typically found at institutions of higher education” (para. 1).

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Acknowledgement

This research was supported by a grant from the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College to the Center for Research on Undergraduate Education at the University of Iowa.

Author information

Correspondence to Nicholas A. Bowman.

Appendix: Descriptive statistics overall and by honors participation

Appendix: Descriptive statistics overall and by honors participation

Variable All students Honors students Non-honors students
M SD M SD M SD
College GPA in the first year .00 1.00 .61 .82 −.10 .99
College GPA in the fourth year .00 1.00 .40 .90 −.06 1.00
College satisfaction at end of first year .00 1.00 .02 1.01 −.01 .99
College satisfaction at end of fourth year .00 1.00 −.01 1.00 .01 1.00
Retention to fall of second year .92 .28 .95 .21 .91 .28
Retention to fall of third year .84 .37 .90 .30 .83 .37
Retention to fall of fourth year .82 .39 .87 .34 .81 .39
Graduated within 4 years .61 .49 .67 .47 .60 .49
Honors participation .15 .36 1.00 .00 .00 .00
Standardized test scores 24.58 4.81 26.02 4.77 24.42 4.76
B HSGPA .40 .49 .26 .44 .42 .49
C or lower HSGPA .05 .21 .02 .13 .05 .21
High school studying alone 4.07 .98 4.18 .97 4.06 .98
High school studying with friends 2.75 1.01 2.80 .98 2.75 1.01
High school activities 3.72 1.23 3.90 1.16 3.70 1.24
High school socializing 4.42 .76 4.41 .77 4.43 .76
High school teacher interactions 3.37 1.00 3.46 1.03 3.35 .99
High school volunteering 3.11 1.11 3.23 1.07 3.10 1.11
High school working for pay 3.30 1.40 3.30 1.41 3.29 1.40
High school drinking .53 .94 .48 .94 .54 .93
High school smoking 1.06 .30 1.05 .25 1.06 .30
Asian American/Pacific Islander .06 .23 .05 .21 .06 .24
Black/African American .11 .31 .11 .31 .11 .31
Latino/Hispanic/Chicano .05 .21 .04 .19 .05 .22
Other race/ethnicity .02 .16 .02 .14 .02 .15
Male .44 .50 .43 .49 .44 .50
Parental education 15.22 2.22 15.44 2.16 15.21 2.22
Highest intended degree 4.33 1.18 4.60 1.19 4.29 1.18
Academic motivation 3.57 .57 3.69 .58 3.55 .56
Need for cognition 3.39 .61 3.51 .64 3.37 .60
Psychological well-being 4.50 .61 4.58 .63 4.50 .60
Importance of social/political involvement 2.63 .53 2.67 .55 2.63 .52
Intended business major .15 .35 .16 .36 .14 .35
Intended education major .08 .27 .07 .25 .08 .26
Intended engineering major .07 .26 .06 .24 .07 .26
Intended humanities/fine arts major .11 .31 .11 .31 .11 .31
Intended health major .11 .31 .13 .33 .11 .31
Intended mathematics/statistics major .02 .12 .02 .14 .01 .12
Intended natural sciences major .12 .32 .12 .33 .11 .32
Intended other major .11 .31 .12 .32 .10 .31
Regional university .30 .46 .26 .44 .29 .46
Research university .38 .49 .47 .50 .38 .48
Institutional selectivity 3.72 1.18 3.52 1.07 3.77 .48

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Bowman, N.A., Culver, K. When Do Honors Programs Make the Grade? Conditional Effects on College Satisfaction, Achievement, Retention, and Graduation. Res High Educ 59, 249–272 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-017-9466-y

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Keywords

  • Honors programs
  • College honors
  • College satisfaction
  • Academic achievement
  • Retention
  • Graduation
  • Institutional selectivity