During his senior year in high school, Jonathan Kennedy was courted by several of the nation's top colleges. Some offered thousands of dollars in scholarships. But Mr. Kennedy, a straight-A student who played the violin with the lan of Paganini, decided to attend a school that doesn't show up on any top-10 list - the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. The reason: It has an honors college.
The 300 high achievers in UCA's honors college live in their own dorm, take classes together, and receive the kind of personalized attention and opportunities that are a feature at many expensive private colleges.
Other public institutions around the country, eager to attract some of the nation's best and brightest, are now racing to emulate the concept. Since 1993 the number of honors colleges in the US has doubled to about 40. More are being planned. The expansion comes as dwindling college bud-gets and a shrinking pool of qualified students have intensified recruiting wars. By promising an elite education for a fraction of the cost, public universities see honors colleges as a way to compete with the Harvards and Yales for top students. The programs can also enhance a school's reputation and increase its visibility.
Public universities "are trying to grow in quality and use the high-quality students as 'academic greyhounds,'" says William Mech, outgoing executive secretary treasurer for the National Collegiate Honors Council. "If you attract good students ... they draw other reasonably good students."
Many institutions considering honors colleges already have honors programs, which first became popular in the 1940s and can now be found at hundreds of universities. But college presidents and provosts have begun to view honors colleges as a way to draw more benefits.
Unlike most honors programs, honors colleges usually have their own dean, separate classroom buildings, separate dorms, and - perhaps most important - an endowment. Still, the differences between the two are often a matter of perception, experts say.
"In many cases ... the dividing line is really very thin," says Joan Digby, author of "Peterson's Guide to Honors Programs '98" - the first guide on the subject, which is to be published in June. "They operate like honors programs, but they are more prestigious, more prominent on campus, and a lot depends on the marketing strategy of presidents."
Some universities have found switching from an honors program to an honors college has been a boon. After the University of Montana in Missoula changed the status of its program to a college in 1993, it saw interest and donations increase.
"We have a lot more inquiries, a lot more applications from students around the country, so ... we can be more selective," says John Madden, dean of the honors college. As an honors program "we never attracted a penny of outside donations. In the four years we've been operating as an honors college we've received around $3 million."
UCA gave Norbert Schedler, the director of its honors college, an award of appreciation for the positive impact the college has had on the university's image. The university now has the highest average ACT scores of any college in the state.
Still, those who represent private institutions say the growth of honors colleges at state universities has not adversely affected them. "This is a case where imitation is the highest form of flattery," says David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Washington. "If what parents and students really want is a larger institution, then the honors college is a nice value added. If what they're looking for is a place where all students, not just a handful, get special treatment on research or projects or smaller classes, then the private college I think will prevail."
Even Mr. Schedler sometimes counsels prospective students to choose more prestigious colleges than UCA. "I'm frankly in a moral bind,... because if they have the funding I urge them to go to Duke, Vanderbilt, or Emory," he says. "But if they can't, I say, 'Please take a serious look at us. We won't have the Calvin Klein label, but we can give the same kind of education.'"
For Kennedy, opting for the honors college at UCA was not a difficult choice. The student from Fort Smith, Ark., who is majoring in philosophy, likes the personal attention and the high quality teaching he has experienced. Though UCA's honors college doesn't have its own faculty, classes are small and professors meet with honors students one-on-one each week. And because the school has its own endowment, students have many opportunities to study abroad. The college paid for Kennedy to spend at semester at Oxford University in England and a summer in India. Best of all, tuition each semester costs only $1,040.
"It's not like [some larger private colleges] which say, 'Here are the programs you're going to be inserted into, and 40 percent of our undergraduate classes are taught by grad students, and you're going to be required to pay upwards of $20,000 out of your own pocket even if you're given our best scholarship program,'" Kennedy says. "Most importantly, when I go to national conferences, I see other students, even grad students, doing things in my area, and I feel I'm on a par with them."