It can be tempting for new Mississippi State University students to look at the Shackouls Honors College and see only the benefits. The MSU Office of Admissions and Scholarships website says honors students enjoy priority registration, honors housing, research and study abroad opportunities, small classes, a special honors distinction on their transcript and individualized mentoring for prestigious scholarships. While all of this is true, a closer look at the benefits reveals they can lose their luster for most students.
First, the priority registration for honors students only has significance for incoming freshmen who get to attend the Scholars Orientation, which takes place before the regular orientation sessions. Once you are at MSU, it just means you can register a few hours earlier than non-honors students in your same class. Frankly, once you get a little bit into your major and no longer have to worry about getting a spot in the intro classes, this perk has diminishing returns.
Honors housing is definitely worth it for freshman year. As the Shackouls Honors College website states, each room in the honors halls have their own bathrooms — a significant upgrade from some of the older dorms which have communal restrooms. Since freshmen are forced to live on-campus, new students might as well stay in nice dorms. Again though, as soon as students can move off-campus, which they often do after freshman year, the value of this benefit is reduced.
Research and study abroad opportunities are available to any interested students, not just those in the Honors College. True, there are some scholarships and funds set aside for honors students, but there is plenty of money elsewhere if you are willing to look for it. Per the Honors College FAQs, you can even participate in the Research Symposium as a non-honors student.
The small classes and distinctive transcript refer to some of the classes in the "Cursus Honorum," the advanced curriculum the Honors College offers. I should make a distinction between the two kinds of honors classes: discipline-specific classes and honors-specific classes. In my experience, discipline-specific classes are just normal classes with the "honors" name slapped on. Sometimes they are a separate section from the regular class, and sometimes they are the same section. These classes typically have little distinction from the regular classes, besides some token assignment the honors students have to do, if that.
Actual honors classes include the "Quest" classes and interdisciplinary courses. These tend to be seminar courses as opposed to the usual lecture-based classes, and they entail a thorough amount of reading. The Quest classes are aimed at freshmen while the more intensive interdisciplinary courses more often have upperclassmen.
But is completing the Cursus Honorum even worth it? On one hand, there is intrinsic value in taking more difficult classes to improve your mind. Students who complete it can credibly claim to have developed their critical thinking skills.
On the other hand, most students will take challenging courses as they complete their major. Even easier majors have a class or two which will demand more of its students. Also, the utility of having "Collegium Honorum" on your degree is questionable. Engineers, accountants and other majors which have clear career paths will derive more value from high GPAs and impressive internships than from taking random interdisciplinary classes. The ability to think critically can always be acquired later, on the job. For liberal arts students who may not be aiming for a specific job, it is true an Honors College transcript could help you stand out from the other applicants. Consider this though. If you take easier electives, you can artificially boost your GPA, which recruiters are sure to pay attention to, and use the time you would have spent reading some inscrutable philosopher on improving your resume.
My advice? For the vast majority of honors students, enjoy the perks for freshman year, but stop and think if the best use of your time is in honors classes. Of course, if you plan on applying for any prestigious scholarships, stay in the Honors College, and make friends with the people who will write your letters of recommendation.