Road Trip: "Aha!" Moments at University of South Carolina and Clemson University

In many ways the University of South Carolina (USC) and Clemson University seem like carbon copies of each other.  Both are relatively large public universities with a strong sports vibe, a rich Greek life, very “Southern”, and a not particularly rigorous academic atmosphere.  Clemson is somewhat smaller at 18,000 undergrad versus USC’s 25,000. Student profiles are similar with middle 50% ACT scores of 26-31 at Clemson and 25-30 at USC. But then…Aha! their Honors Colleges are both ranked top in the nation (a “5 mortar board” ranking by Public Universities Honors). Student profiles of the Honors Colleges are a different story; USC’s Honors profile middle 50% ACT scores are 31-34 and GPA is 4.41-4.95. 

In both cases the Honors Colleges are residential with around 1,500 and 1,600 students or 8% of Clemson students and 6% of USC students respectively. There are comparable perks such as priority registration, honors specific research grants, classes, and scholarships.  There are also differences making their offerings unique.  USC Honors’ College has its own Dean and Faculty with over 600 honors classes and an average class size of 14-17 students.  Students are required to take roughly a third of their graduation credit hours from these courses. Clemson’s Calhoun Honors College offers honors sections of college-wide courses, which reduce class size considerably and increase rigor. My favorite exclusive program is EUREKA! at Calhoun Honors College. EUREKA! Is a five-week residential research program the summer before freshman year giving students a leg-up on campus life in addition to an academic experience. 

The similarities between USC and Clemson go further. Both universities are known to provide robust financial aid and scholarships.  Clemson states that 87% of their student body receives some amount of aid; that number is 93% at USC for incoming freshmen dropping slightly to 90% in the following years.  Kiplinger identifies both schools as “Best Value” schools.  Career services and academic support is another area of mutual strength —the offerings are many though it is up to the student to take advantage of them.

The top two areas of study are, again, similar across the two schools…but flipped.  Clemson’s most popular major is Biological Science with Management second. At USC Business / Marketing is the most popular major with Biology and related health professions coming in second.  The USC admissions officer also made a point of mentioning their School of Hospitality, Retail and Sports Management as unique and well regarded.

Campus location on the other hand is a major point of difference.  USC is highly urban, right downtown in Columbia, the capital of South Carolina.  Clemson on the other hand is somewhat bucolic with its own lake visited often by a senior who “was just there last night!”

A curious difference between the schools was transparency.  USC was noticeably more welcoming and candid —a philosophy conveyed through their information session, website and brochures, as well as outreach by Admissions to provide extra time and data for visiting counselors.  Though there was something refreshing to be said for Clemson’s approach of making little to no effort to sell their school, USC’s transparency was equally refreshing. 

Consider either the University of South Carolina or Clemson University for their Honors Colleges.  If you are looking for academic challenge within a state school environment either may be for you. Urban versus suburban location along with a particular academic program of interest may be the deciding factors between the two.