Under the guidance of then Dean of Instruction Robert Parks, the University Honors Program was established in 1960, attracting 40 students in its first year. Because the program was designed for students with proven success at Iowa State, freshmen were not admitted. In its early days, Honors did not offer courses but allowed students to engage in individual study or research or to alter their curriculum. Within a few years, a non-credit interdisciplinary seminar became available and the first Honors course, Developmental Psychology, was offered in 1963.
Honors was run part-time by faculty, beginning with Don Charles of the Department of Psychology. In 1966, Edwin Lewis, also from Psychology, became Chair of Honors. Lewis’ interest in educating high-ability students would benefit the program for many years. Credit-bearing Honors seminars, developed to encourage intellectual breadth and build interaction across the colleges, continue to be an integral part of the program. Lewis also organized the first Student Advisory Board. In 1967 a permanent Honors office was opened in Old Botany (now Catt Hall). As the program grew (and Lewis moved to Beardshear) Ann Feyerherm, then a recent ISU graduate, became Coordinator of Special Programs.
Significant events in the program's evolution occurred in the 1970s. In 1973, the Freshman Honors Program began, providing a common Honors experience and encouraging group identity. In 1975, relocation to Osborn Cottage (now the site of Gerdin Business Building), gave the program a full-fledged home and identity. In 1977, Elizabeth Beck, who was pivotal in shaping Honors’ future, became Coordinator of Special Programs.
In the early 1980s, Honors curricula developed in the new colleges of Business and Design. The Freshman Mentor Program, a research experience, debuted in 1987. Lewis developed an intensive training program for first-year seminar leaders. Honors components of courses were implemented, and poster sessions for presenting Honors Projects began. Also in the 80s, Honors students played an important role in hosting the Upper Midwest Regional Honors Conference. Through their annual Call-A-Thon, Honors students raised money for the purchase of Osborn Cottage computers and travel to regional and national conferences.
Honors continued to grow in the 1990s. Enrollment more than doubled, as did participation in the first-year research program, and the first-year program increased two and a half times over. Compensation for faculty teaching Honors seminars began in 1991, and research grants for the Mentor Program were established in 1993. The university’s accreditation report of 1996 found the Honors Program to be a "notable strength" of ISU.
Honors is currently housed under the Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost, reporting to Ann Marie VanDerZanden, Associate Provost for Academic Programs. In Fall 2002, the Honors Program moved into the new Jischke Honors Building overlooking Central campus. This prairie-style building provides a comfortable home for Honors students and staff and includes three classrooms, lounge space, a computer lab, a kitchenette, and staff office space. In the new century, a faculty member was added to the Honors staff, as Ricki Shine and then Laurie Smith-Law became Administrative Directors of Honors and three faculty, most recently English professor Susan Yager, served as faculty directors. The Honors Alumni Board was established in 2008 with the aim of enhancing Honors students’ experiences well into the future.