Higher Ed. Hidden Gems: Penn State's Honors Program

Kicking and screaming. As my parents drove me up to Penn State’s main campus in the summer of 1998, I wanted to throw myself onto I-76.

Freshman year courses started in just four days, but I was still in denial.  I kept hoping my dad would pull a u-turn towards New York City or Evanston or Georgetown.  I had been devastated for the past five months after finding that thin envelope from Columbia University in my mail box.  

And since my final choices had boiled down to very expensive institutions which I wasn’t exactly in love with (at least not enough to take out $150,000 in student loans) and a much more affordable Penn State, it was decided that I would go to our state school.  After debating value and experience and cost with my parents, we decided PSU would best fit the bill. (I would later graduate with no student loans.)

On the upside,  I would be enrolled in its Schreyer Honors College, which offered me early course registration, first-dibs on housing and small class sizes, all on top of an extra $3,000 a year in scholarship savings.  But would it give me the prestige to enter into a successful life post graduation life, like an Ivy League name on my resume would? I had my doubts. But soon I would learn:

Things turned out more than OK. My senior year thesis—a requirement to graduate with honors—helped differentiate me from thousands of other undergrad applicants hoping to get into the Graduate Journalism School at Columbia University. Yes, Columbia. I finally made it there. Meanwhile, my access to Penn State’s alumni network—the largest in the country—continues to benefit me socially and professionally.

Consider Honors Programs: the School within a School
One less on here, is to look beyond the surface. Honors and scholar programs at state colleges and universities are oft-overlooked in some cases because students may not think they qualify or even know such programs exist.  Michigan State, Purdue University, the University of Arizona, the University of Maryland and California State University, Fresno, are a just a few of the schools offering honors programs across the country.  In general there are higher standards and requirements for student applicants. At Penn State, for example, first-year honors students score very high on their SATs (though they’re not required), averaging between 2010 and 2108 out of 2400.

The school insists, however, there’s more to getting in than good grades.  “We have students that are not just the best academically...but really do care about the world around them,” says Dr. Christian M. M. Brady, Dean of the Schreyer Honors College. “They want to transform the world and make it a better place.”

Here's what you need to know about Penn State's program.

Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College Stats:

The Goods: Honors students have access to all of Pennsylvania State University’s social offerings, including its IFC/Pan-Hellenic society of sororities and fraternities, athletic teams, arts clubs, music groups, leadership committees and student government, etc.  And don’t forget, we have a pretty famous football team.

A great number of honors students study abroad for a semester, and are encouraged to do so to “foster a global perspective,” according to Dean Brady. The Schreyer Ambassador Travel Grants help offset transportation costs associated with study abroad and overseas research. For the 2008-09 academic year, 286 travel grants totaling more than $200,000 have been awarded to Schreyer Scholars studying abroad.

What Makes the School Special: Students get the best of both college worlds: a large state university with a wealth of resources and an enormous student and faculty body on one side, plus an intimate, more focused and highly intellectual academic experience on the other.  Plus, if you need extra money to study abroad or afford an internship the school encourages you to apply for grants. I got a $1,500 grant to support my living costs in New York one summer while taking an unpaid internship.

Total Honors College Student Body:
1,813 total (1,480 in state/333 out-of-state).
35 states and 14 countries are represented.

Most Popular Degrees:
Engineering and Liberal Arts

Student:Teacher Ratio:

Annual Tuition Costs (including this year’s average $3,500 academic excellence scholarship):
In-state: $10,000.
Out-of-state: $21,000.

Cost of Living  (Room and Board Estimate):
In-state: About $8,000 a year.
Out-of-state:  About $9,000 a year.

Financial Aid:
All incoming freshman receive roughly $3,500 in scholarship money at a minimum.  The $3,500 is renewable for four years given students remain in “good academic standing.”

Percent Out-of-State:
18 %

Job Placement Stats:
A majority of honors students graduate to a higher level of education, either a master’s program or PhD.  Companies that hired () students ran the gamut last year: Goldman Sachs (Stock Quote: GS), IBM (Stock Quote: IBM), Nike (Stock Quote: NKE), Lockheed Martin (Stock Quote: LMT) and General Electric (Stock Quote: GE), among others.

The recession may have put your dream school out of reach. But less expensive doesn’t mean less worthy.  On MainStreet we are making it our mission to bring you a gem of a school each week to help you make the most of your investment in yourself.

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