Honors Programs Go Extra Mile to Draw Top Students

University of Texas-Austin McCombs School of Business

University of Texas-Austin McCombs School of Business

Back when she was a high school senior, Bethany Rolan was faced with the enviably difficult choice between a spot in the freshman class at the University of Texas-Austin’s McCombs School of Business or at Washington University in St. Louis. Rolan, who grew up in Lubbock, Texas, originally envisioned herself leaving the Lone Star State and heading to a small out-of-state liberal arts college. That changed when she learned she’d received a spot in McCombs’ prestigious Business Honors Program.

Rolan was invited to Austin to attend a recruiting weekend for students admitted to the honors program, and she was swayed after spending a few hours with current honors students. She says they raved about the small class sizes, the MBA case study approach taught in class, and invitations to dinners at their professors’ houses.

“What really stood out for me was, I knew I was going to get a world-class business education. The program was going to offer me this small class size and strong professor relationship you don’t usually get in the context of a Division I, Big 12 school,” says Rolan, now a senior at McCombs in the Business Honors Program. “They were pulling out their best professors and recruiting the most passionate, capable students for this program. That was definitely attractive.”


With business the most popular major for undergraduates in the U.S., getting into a top undergraduate business program these days is no easy feat. Those who manage to get into the more exclusive business honors programs find themselves gaining valuable access to resources and career opportunities often not available to mainstream students. Business honors programs such as the one at the McCombs School are increasingly becoming a valuable tool for universities, administrators say, enhancing their reputations and allowing them to pull in top students to their campuses who might otherwise consider other schools.

Many business honors programs are housed at state universities, though other, smaller private schools are also starting their own programs to make their business schools more attractive to increasingly discerning high school seniors. Such programs’ perks appeal to students, directors of these programs say, because they offer small, seminar-style honors classes, early access to recruiters and opportunities like exclusive “honors”-only career treks and study-abroad opportunities.

At Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, 15 to 20 percent of the incoming class receive an invitation to the undergraduate business school’s Leaders Academy, based on their high school GPA and standardized test scores. Perks include access to their own lounge and study space in the school’s graduate business student building, housing in a special business honors residential community, and the chance to earn a certificate in honors business consulting, an opportunity open only to honors students.

McCombs’ Business Honors Program is one of the harder programs to get into on campus, says Robert Prentice, the program’s faculty director, noting that the admissions committee will often turn down valedictorians in favor of top students with more leadership experience. This year, 1,700 students applied to the program and 240 were admitted, of whom about 122 accepted a spot. (Students considering the program are also often considering top schools like Brown University, Duke University, and Stanford University, Prentice says.) The program has a staff of six people, including a dedicated career adviser, and they organize around 80 events a year for business honors students, from career treks to Boston and Seattle to summer study-abroad programs in Argentina, Prentice says. There are 14 accelerated classes designed specifically for honors students modeled after those taught in the MBA program, and the honors students have a 100% job placement rate, with most choosing between several offers, he notes.

“There are a lot of employers who come to campus who want to speak only to our business honors students, or speak to them first,” Prentice says.

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