Is It True that 80% of Elite Students Are Accepted by Elite Colleges?


Editor’s Note: The following post examines the claim by the New America Foundation that acceptance to elite colleges is not any more difficult than in the past, with 80% of highly qualified applicants still being accepted by elite schools. What we found is that even with the additional elite slots offered by honors colleges and programs, there are not enough slots to accommodate 80% of elite applicants. Although the acceptance rate as indicated by probability statistics (given multiple applications by each student) might show a high acceptance rate, the enrollment rate must be significantly lower than 80% for elite students. Updated with important changes, March 21, 2016.

Kevin Carey is director of education policy at the New American Foundation, and recently he has argued (1) that the end of college as we know it fast approaching, thanks to technology, and that (2) reaching a good college isn’t as hard as it seems.

Carey has little use for research universities, a “hybrid” form of higher education whereby students are offered the “bait” of being able to study with well-known research professors only to experience a “switch” once they are enrolled, finding themselves under the inept tutelage of callow TA’s and lower level faculty. The advent of MOOCs will give rise to the university of, and for, everyone, leading  also to the “brutal unmasking” of hybrid universities as the pretenders Carey believes them to be.

At the end of the post, there is a list of colleges, universities, and public honors programs with mean SAT scores of 1300 or above.

Setting aside Carey’s curious approach of proclaiming the end times for traditional colleges on the one hand while announcing the cheerful prospects for enrolling in these same colleges on the other, we will focus only on his assertion that approximately 80% of highly qualified college applicants are now able to gain acceptance to an “elite” college, never mind the dire comments on how much tougher it is now to get into such institutions.

According to Carey, “the slots themselves [at elite colleges] aren’t becoming more scarce and the number of students competing with one another isn’t growing.”As we suggest below, the problem with this statement is that the slots Carey is talking about seem to be plentiful because the colleges he includes are not as elite as the students he is tracking.

Therefore, while it may be true that 80% of applicants gain acceptance to the 113 colleges he is tracking, it is highly unlikely that there are in fact 113 schools whose mean test scores match the threshold scores of his applicant cohort, or that have sufficient slots to actually enroll those students. Indeed, the only way all of these students can attend colleges that even approximate their level of credentials is for many of the students to attend the very “hybrid” universities Carey criticizes.

(The New America Foundation also takes public universities to task for offering too much of their financial aid resources to students who are meritorious but not so needy as others. We will comment on this assertion in a later post.)

Carey defines elite applicants as those with SAT scores of 1300 or higher, or with a comparable ACT score. Elite colleges are those that are among “the 113 schools identified by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges as the most selective.”

We followed up on Carey’s assertion by doing some research of our own. Using the 25th percentile scores and the 75th percentile scores in the 2015 U.S. News rankings and dividing the total by two in order to arrive at an approximate average, we found that, rather than 113 colleges with average test scores of 1300 or higher, there are only about 86. In addition, there are 51 public honors colleges/programs with mean test scores of 1300 or higher. For purposes of illustration, we assumed that there was a like number of private honors colleges and programs, though we believe this is a generous estimate.

Then we calculated the number of students who took the ACT and SAT in 2014 and who score in the 91st or 92nd percentile or higher on one or both tests. An SAT score of 1300 is the 91st percentile; an ACT score of 29 or higher is also at the 92nd percentile level. We estimated that 25 percent of the 345,250 students took both tests; again, this is probably a generous estimate. This estimate should also take into account the relatively small number of high scorers who do not have high school GPA’s commensurate with their test scores.

The result: about 259,000 students met the test score threshold in 2014.

Next, we calculated that of the 86 colleges and universities with mean test scores at the threshold or higher, there were 131,077 places for freshmen in 2014. This leaves a deficit of 127,923 places for highly talented students, or more than 49%.

Using exact figures for public honors colleges and programs, we added another 20,917 places. Then we added another 20,917 places for private university honors colleges even though we doubt that there are that many honors places in private schools.

Therefore, the total number of “elite” places in 2014, including honors program places, was approximately 172,911. Subtracting this number from 259,000 still yields a deficit of elite places in the amount of 86,089.

New America claims 80 percent of elite students were accepted, but it is extremely unlikely that they could have actually found a place in the elite group of schools we have identified. So, if we take .8 x 259,000 students, the result is 207,000 students who should have been accepted by elite schools. Subtracting 172,911 places from 207,000 still leaves a deficit of elite places in the amount of 34,289 places. Again, the actual deficit is probably higher.

From these calculations, it appears that the acceptance rate for elite students, if they were to apply to schools with mean test scores at the threshold level or higher and not to less selective schools, would not be 80%, and it is very unlikely that there could be enough truly elite places for 80%. This is based on the calculation 172,911/259,000. That there is “room” for about 67% of elite students in elite colleges may not be a panic situation, but some elite students should be prepared to attend colleges whose mean scores are somewhat lower than their scores.

For the time being, there are solid alternatives at relatively low cost, at least for in-state students: those discredited “hybrid” institutions. Washington, Wisconsin, UT Austin, Florida, Penn State, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, Ohio State, Georgia, Rutgers, Connecticut, Purdue, and Clemson may not have had average test scores in 2014 that meet the New America definition; but surely many of the elite students choose to attend these universities, in addition to those who are accepted by the more selective honors programs at most of these schools. Indeed, New America probably included these and other prominent public and private universities in its list of 113, despite their average test scores being somewhat lower than those of the elite students they tracked.

The estimated total number of freshmen slots at the 14 state schools above is about 104,771. At these schools, there are perhaps 40,000 to 52,500 freshmen who meet the elite definition.

This should leave no doubt about the need for these universities to sustain or enhance their current level of excellence: they are necessary, as are public and private honors programs, if top students are to actually “reach” schools that approximate their abilities.

Below are the universities, colleges, and public honors programs we have identified as having mean test scores of SAT 1300/ACT 29 or higher. Not included is a list of private honors colleges that meet the threshold; as noted above, we have estimated the number of students accepted by these honors colleges. The public honors colleges and programs are in listed in bold type at the end.

Carnegie Mellon
Boston College
Johns Hopkins
Notre Dame
Wash U
UC Berkeley
North Carolina
UC San Diego
Georgia Tech
Wake Forest
Case Western
William & Mary
Univ of Miami
Stevens Inst of Tech
Claremont McKenna
Washington Lee
Harvey Mudd
Bryn Mawr
Colorado College
Holy Cross
Franklin and Marshall
Mt. Holyoke
Connecticut College
South Carolina
UT Austin Plan II
Virginia Tech
Stony Brook
Ohio State
Penn State
Miami Oh
Texas A&M
UC Davis
Florida St
Ohio Univ
UC Santa Barbara
Michigan St
North Carolina St
UC Irvine
Univ at Buffalo
Colorado St
Oregon St
Oklahoma St
Arizona St


Honors “Contract” Courses Can Be Valuable if…

Occasionally, we report on the developing scholarly research related to honors colleges and programs, much if it published by the Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council (JNCHC).

As we have been analyzing honors curricula and course offerings for the next edition of our book, we have again observed that most honors programs give students the option to “contract” with a faculty member to do more in-depth work in a non-honors section in order to receive honors credit.

In her 2005 JNCHC article, “Contracting in Honors,”Kambra Bolch, then with the Texas Tech Honors College, sought to answer this question: “Does contracting really measure up to the expectations of the honors experience?”

Now well established, the Texas Tech Honors College dealt forthrightly with this question a decade ago, and Ms. Bolch deftly recounts the experience and then offers answers that should be of interest to prospective honors students and their parents, who should inquire about the frequency and quality of honors contract courses.  (Please see “Solutions” below.)

“Despite a significant growth in the college’s resources and a corresponding increase in its ability to offer stand-alone honors courses, a number of students, particularly in the engineering and science disciplines, still had difficulty completing the required 24 hours of honors coursework to earn an Honors College designation on their diploma,” she wrote.

Another factor leading to more honors contracts was that dual credit and advanced placement credit gave many honors students a chance to apply those credits to general education requirements instead of taking honors courses.  These students then had to find ways to meet the 24-hour requirement, and the use of contract courses increased.  (Now, the college does not allow advanced placement test scores to replace honors courses.)

But the increase in contract courses carried a series of problems.  The typical honors component of non-honors classes was an extra paper, but these were often turned in at the very end of the term, with little previous contact between the professor and honors student, “a situation that seemed antithetical to the expectations of an honors experience.”

Then even more serious issues arose.  Some students submitted plagiarized papers at the last minute, leaving little time to discover the dishonesty.  The quality of legitimate contract work was also uneven.

Accepting that honors contracts had to be retained in some form, the college began a series of meetings, including faculty.   In the end, they came up with the following steps to ensure that honors contracts did in fact meet “the expectations of the honors experience.”


To ensure the quality of contract credits, the college alone certifies the contract work as worthy of honors credit even though faculty retained the authority to issue whatever grades they thought appropriate.

More importantly, the contract forms themselves became much more detailed and specific.

The information sheet “emphasizes three components of the additional work required for the contract: 1) that the student complete a substantial paper or project (15-20 page research paper or a project of equivalent time/effort); 2) that the student share the knowledge/skills/experiences gained through the paper or project with an audience of some sort; and 3) that the faculty member and student have regular contact outside of class to discuss the student’s progress and answer questions regarding the paper or project.”

In addition, the student is “required to state specifically on the contract form how he or she will meet each of the three requirements. At the midpoint of the semester, the faculty member is asked to provide a brief report on the contact he or she has had with the student and to assess the student’s progress to date.”  An honors college staff person, or persons, is designated to work with all contracts and professors, thereby developing valuable knowledge about courses, grading, requirements, and the range of disciplines open to contracts.

Finally, the college began allow honors students to enroll in graduate courses for honors credit.  Because the courses almost always feature seminar engagement along with rigorous reading and research requirements, they definitely meet the expectations of the honors experience.

UGA Center Is Incubator for Excellence in Undergraduate Research

The track record of the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO) at the University of Georgia makes the center a model of “high-impact” practices that allow students of exceptional promise to engage in faculty-mentored research almost from the day they arrive at the Athens campus. 

Founded in the late 1990s, CURO allows undergraduates, including non-honors students, to

  1. “create a self-selected research career, allowing them to earn credit hours which can count towards degree program completion.
  2. “gain access to presenting (Symposium); funding (Summer Fellowships) and publishing (JURO, the Journal of Undergraduate Research) opportunities.
  3. “form a mentoring relationship focused on conducting research and professional development.
  4. “develop a deeper understanding of their chosen field by working closely with a research faculty mentor.”

As evidence of the center’s success, UGA can point to the involvement of all of the university’s Goldwater scholarship winners in CURO since the center’s inception, and to the fact that CURO has “figured prominently in the programs of study” for 5 Rhodes Scholars,  5 Gates Cambridge Scholars, 4 Marshall Scholars, 3 Mitchell Scholars, 5 Truman Scholars, 5 Udall Scholars, and Fulbright Student Scholars.

We believe that the Goldwater awards are a strong indication of the level of undergraduate support and mentoring at a given institution, and UGA and CURO offer two special programs to augment the already impressive features of the center:

Summer Fellowship Program–In this extremely intensive program, students submit research proposals for 30 fellowships each summer.  If selected, students spend 320-400 hours over the summer working closely with one or more faculty mentors on the research project that the student has self-selected.  The summer fellowship program has “led directly” to 4 Goldwater  and 2 Udall Scholarships.

CURO Honors Scholarship Program–Honors students in their very first semester at UGA may begin their participation in this program, which focuses on developing the writing, presentation, and other professional skills necessary to clarify and develop their research, and to make it as persuasive as possible.  To date, 7 honors scholars have gone on to win Goldwater scholarships.

Please go to this link for more information on CURO eligibility.

Advice for the Successful Honors Student: Get (Deeply) Involved in Research

Editor’s Note:  Thanks to Hutton Honors at Indiana University for providing this update showing how important undergrad research is for graduate school admission and for employment opportunities. 

Honors students engaged in intensive research endeavors are attractive to top graduate schools and to great companies.

Consider the Cox Research Scholars Program administered by Indiana University’s Hutton Honors College.

Cox Research Scholars are selected through a competitive process to study and apprentice all four years with an Indiana University faculty mentor on research or creative activity.  Each student receives a renewable scholarship and stipend that covers the total cost of attendance.

According to data compiled by the Hutton Honors College, by December of 2012, the Cox graduating class of 2011 had a 100 percent placement rate (either in graduate school or in jobs), while the 2012 cohort clocked in at 87 percent.  Graduate school-bound Cox alumni are studying at, among other institutions, MIT, Emory School of Medicine, the University of Chicago, and NYU’s School of Law.  Cox alumni are also employed at Deloitte Consulting, Cummins Inc., Price Waterhouse Coopers, and General Mills.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s not merely research experience that gets the attention of recruiters, but rather, demonstration of research commitment and results.  In 2012, alone, Cox Research Scholars co-authored or presented more than 20 papers at major research conferences.

More at:

UT Austin: $310 Million for Engineering Research and Student Projects

The Cockrell School of Engineering at UT Austin has launched a $310 million project to build the Engineering Education and Research Center , which will include 23,000 square feet of space for engineering students to create and develop hands-on projects.

The total size of the center will be 430,000 square feet, including classroom and office space.

Dr. James Truchard, co-founder and CEO of National Instruments, has donated $10 million for the National Instruments Student Project Center.  Dr. Truchard has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, all from UT Austin.

The Cockrell School of Engineering is outgrowing its present space and needs the addition in order to match recent growth at MIT, Georgia Tech, UC Berkeley, and Texas A&M.

The Cockrell School says that for Truchard, “the  a gift to the EERC is about more than giving back to the university. It’s an investment in National Instrument’s future workforce. Headquartered in Austin, Texas, National Instruments includes more than 6,000 employees working in 40 countries.

“We hire from many different areas, electrical engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering and increasingly biomedical engineering. Our professionals need to be flexible, creative and innovative and know how to stay above the curve. Their education is a critical component to their future success,” Truchard said.

“Bringing to life math and physics to students in a way that it inspires innovative thinking and allowing them to succeed and fail with hands-on projects are just a few of the many benefits Truchard and others look forward to with the building of the EERC,” according to the Cockrell School.

At least one-third of the total cost of the 430,000 square foot facility will come in the form of private donations, with the UT System, the university, and the state of Texas providing the rest.  So far, the Board of Regents has designated $105 million for the project from the state’s permanent university fund.

“Depending on fundraising progress, the construction could begin in 2013, and faculty and students could move into the EERC by 2017,” the School says. “The return on…investment will be substantial since a typical graduating class from the Cockrell School generates
$2.5 billion in annual spending, $1.1 billion in gross product, and 10,240 jobs in the U.S. according to an economic study by the Perryman Group.”



Public University Faculty Awards in Science

Recently, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, publisher of the prestigious journal Science, released the names of just over 700 U.S. faculty members who had been named fellows of the AAAS.  Below is a partial breakdown, showing the public institutions with at least five fellows for the current year.

In addition, we will have a separate list showing the number of National Academy of Sciences (NAS) members for each university.  Membership in the NAS is extremely selective.

Some of the numbers may be a surprise, but what is no surprise is the prominence of University of California schools, especially on the NAS list.

New Fellows AAAS (note: our list does not include fellows from medical schools affiliated with universities)

Michigan–19 (led all institutions, public and private)

Ohio State–18 (second among all institutions)

Univ of S. Florida–14

UC Davis–13

UC Irvine–13


UC San Diego–11




North Carolina–8

Stony Brook–8

UC Santa Barbara–8

Washington State–8

Georgia Tech–7




UT Austin–7


Penn State–6

Colorado State–5





Univ of Cent. Florida–5

The next list shows public institutions that have at least ten faculty members in the National Academy of Sciences:

UC Berkeley–129 (third highest in the nation, public or private, following Harvard and Stanford)

UC San Diego–65




UC Santa Barbara–33





UC Davis–20

UC Irvine–20

UT Austin–17



Penn State–13


Ohio State–12

Arizona State–11


Stony Brook–10



















Are Florida’s Leaders Inviting Another Catastrophe–This Time in Higher Ed?

Florida, in the news once again for its election woes, is also joining Texas and Virginia in the race to see how much havoc meddling university board members can create in the name of “reform.”

In Florida, the most controversial issue is “differentiated tuition,” a business-speak term to describe a plan to reduce tuition for STEM majors and others in Legislature-designated priority fields, while allowing tuition for students in the arts, humanities, and social sciences to increase.

(See discussion and links related to Differentiated Tuition, below.)

Florida Governor Rick Scott has expressed his admiration for the conservative push by Rick Perry in Texas to transform that state’s flagship schools into productivity machines aligned with the perceived economic needs of the state and business community. Like the recent fiasco in Virginia, these efforts stem, so to speak, from the brains of libertarian and entrepreneurial types who are all agog over the latest management trends. What they claim as their goal is “value” for the state and, occasionally, for students; what they desire is instrumental education on the cheap, paid for in part by gutting those pesky academic disciplines that examine values beyond the bottom line.

Florida Higher Ed Task Force Plan is not only poorly written in its current draft form but also ill-advised. It also has a confrontational, we-know-best tone, especially in its references to “academics.”

“A chasm…exists between the system’s colleges and universities and those who must make the difficult decisions in appropriating scare resources,” the plan says. “Many in the academy deny or outright reject the expectations for increased efficiencies and productivity as precursors to demonstrating value that is presumed, to the detriment of the institutions and systems, as self-evident.”

Despite the inelegance of the last sentence, it is more or less clear that the task force is upset with the academy. Furthermore, the task force wants the academy to know that the state’s Board of Governors does indeed have the final word in higher education: The Board is authorized “to operate, regulate, control, and be fully responsive for the management of the whole university system.”

The plan even slips in a criticism of health care as being one of the villains in causing college costs to rise, along with “the perceived demands by students for making ‘college a life-style, not just people getting an education.’”  And the state of North Carolina also receives a gratuitous slap as an allegedly spendthrift state “widely held as a paragon for [sic] higher education systems” yet “it leads Florida by only two percentage points in…the proportion of its citizens who hold associate degrees or higher.”

The lifestyle quote also appeared in a New York Times story that correctly pointed out that support jobs in all colleges, public and private, have been growing. But not all of that growth is directed at pampering students.

“The growth in support staff included some jobs that did not exist 20 years ago, like environmental sustainability officers and a broad array of information technology workers,” the Times reported. “The support staff category includes many different jobs, like residential-life staff, admissions and recruitment officers, fund-raisers, loan counselors and all the back-office staff positions responsible for complying with the new regulations and reporting requirements colleges face.” And not a few of those requirements have to do with documenting the metric-driven results dictated by governors and legislatures.

Differentiated Tuition

But what about the merits of differentiated tuition? The task force wants to lower tuition for “high-wage, high-demand (market determined demand) degree programs, as identified by the Legislature.” This phrase appears repeatedly, verbatim, throughout the draft report. The success of the plan will be measured by the following:

1. More degrees in “strategic areas of importance”;
2. Higher percentage of grads who become employed or who continue their education;
3. More grads who attain employment at a higher salary rate; and
4. More “efficiencies” that lower the cost for institutions and students.

The draft somewhat vaguely identifies the “important” degree programs: 111 in STEM subjects; 28 in Globalization (whatever that may be); 21 in health professions; 19 in education (but only in Math and Sciences); and 9 in security and emergency services.

For perspective on these ideas, we recommend Should Science Majors Pay Less for College Than Art Majors? , an article in the Atlantic by Jordan Weissmann; More STEM Majors Won’t Solve Higher Education’s Problems, an article by Elizabeth Popp Berman that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education; and Why STEM Is Not Enough (and why we still need the humanities) in the Washington Post, by Cathy N. Davidson, Paula Barker Duffy, Martha Wagner Weinberg, and Valerie Strauss.

“First, you need to take it on faith that the government is capable of divining which majors are going to be the most marketable year after year,” Weissmann writes.  “Second, you need to believe that there are a large number of talented undergrads who could hack it in these subjects, but are choosing easier majors instead.”

“Meanwhile,” Weissmann adds, “it’s not clear that hoards of potential engineers and computer scientists are shunning the campus lab in order to go read Baudelaire instead. Though I haven’t seen state-level data, the vast majority of bachelor’s degrees awarded in this country go to students who study business, science, engineering, and health. The kids today already approach college with a fairly pre-professional mindset.”

Berman notes that “there’s no reason to think this would help Florida economically. If the state wants to align higher education with the needs of business, it should take a look at surveys of employers, who indicate, year after year, that what they most want from college grads is “the ability to effectively communicate” and “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills”—classic hallmarks of a liberal arts education. And studies like Academically Adrift show that it’s the humanities and social sciences, as well as the natural sciences, that lead to measurable improvements in critical thinking.”

The Washington Post article cites Hunter Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities and the former president of both Cornell and the University of Iowa, as believing that the humanities and arts actually help contribute to alleviating our national STEM teacher and research crisis.

“Whereas a high percentage of students who come to college wanting to major in science and engineering drop out and go into business-related social sciences, this is not nearly so much the case at liberal arts colleges,” the Post says.

According to the Post, in the “nation’s most selective liberal arts colleges, a higher percentage of students go on to graduate and professional degrees in STEM fields than is the case at the nation’s major research universities. Integrated liberal arts knowledge, where STEM is a vital component of a larger curriculum that includes a range of literacies, creative expression, and the arts, seems to be ideal for developing future STEM teachers, practitioners, and researchers.”

The same can be said of honors colleges and programs in larger institutions, where the curriculum and “lifestyle” reflect the best in liberal arts education. Honors education does not imitate a factory operation designed to meet an instrumental, external demand but instead embraces the words of a renowned Greek philosopher, whose own method has become a model of effective pedagogy: “Education is the kindling of a flame,” Socrates said,” not the filling of a vessel.”

John Willingham, Editor

Leading Public Universities for Undergraduate Research

We are about to head out to Boston for the annual conference of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC), and one of the most exciting features of the conference is the presentation of undergraduate research by honors students from across the nation.   So this is a good time to list the most recent U.S. News listings of the best major public universities for undergraduate research, an area in which most public honors programs excel.

The number of public flagship institutions on the list doubled over last year to include 10 in the current list.

The magazine lists 50 universities based on a national survey of 1,500 college presidents, deans, and chief academic officers.  The magazine lists the schools alphabetically, and below are the leading public institutions that made the list:

  • Arizona
  • Michigan
  • Nebraska
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Virginia Tech
  • UC Berkeley
  • UCLA
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

Special congratulations to Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, UC Berkeley, and Wisconsin for making the list two years in a row!


STEM Majors: Faculty Reputation May Be Especially Important

From time to time we become mildly wonkish and write about the implications of some of our data, including information that we did not include in A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs.

Recently, we have been looking at correlations between faculty reputation and honors curricula on the one hand, and the attainment of prestigious scholarships, such as Rhodes, Truman, Goldwater, Fulbright, and National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate research grants on the other.

A significant correlation that stands out is that between faculty reputation and prestigious NSF grants, awarded for research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and, to a lesser extent, research in the social sciences.  

We did not find that our data for honors curricula correlated significantly with the attainment of NSF grants.  This does not mean, however, that participation in honors programs is not important to STEM majors, for honors programs are the surest way to connect serious undergraduates with research opportunities supervised by high-quality faculty.  In addition, of course, honors curricula typically provide more scope and depth to the overall education of all honors students.

We also found a lesser but still significant correlation between faculty reputation and the attainment of Fulbright Student awards, given in a variety of disciplines.  Again, the correlation of these awards with curricula was minimal; but the same access to strong faculty mentors via involvement in honors, along with the broader honors education, still points to advantages in pursuing honors.

The impact of honors curricula is clear, however, when it comes to Truman and Goldwater awards, and when curricula are correlated with a metric that combines all prestigious scholarships (including Rhodes, Marshall, Gates, and Udall) except for NSF grants.  Honors curricula are a stronger factor than faculty reputation with respect to the combined scholars metric, but both curricula and reputation are important.

It is interesting that curricula correlate with the undergraduate Goldwater awards, also given for STEM research, but not with the NSF grants.  The impact of faculty reputation was minimal when correlated to Truman Scholarships.

So what is the “take home” message from all this number-crunching?   For STEM majors,  strong faculty along with honors research opportunities are probably as important as the general honors curriculum. Departmental honors, with a thesis requirement, are also important if the honors program does not require a thesis.



The Value of Honors Contract Courses: It Depends

Some honors programs and colleges make liberal use of honors contract courses, which allow a student to receive honors credit for taking a non-honors class if the student and professor agree on additional requirements–often a paper or research project–and honors staff confer formal approval on the contract arrangement.

Whether the contract courses are worthy additions to honors education depends on the following factors:

  • the reasons that the courses are offered;
  • the substance of the additional requirement for honors credit;  and
  • the frequency of the contract courses.

If faculty productivity requirements reward departments and individual faculty for teaching large numbers of students, then honors contracts may allow faculty to receive credit for teaching a large section and also allow the honors credit for the section.  This approach may be defensible if budget cuts  or productivity requirements leave no other alternative, or if the university as a whole offers smaller, high-quality classes to most of its students, whether or not the students are in the honors program.

Using contract courses primarily as a means of circumventing faculty involvement in honors-only courses, however, could well be a sign that the program lacks strong support from the departments, the administration, or both.

But if a culture of excellence is pervasive at a university, then the honors contracts may be more defensible.  Honors students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, might be able to contract for a large number of classes that are relatively small and of high quality, but that are not formally designated as honors-only classes.  While this arrangement may lead to claims that the honors program is not sufficiently distinct from the university as a whole, the result is nevertheless likely to be a substantive experience.

In any case, honors contract courses should in fact be substantive.  If an additional paper is required for honors credit, then the paper should be of considerable length and reflect serious scholarship.  The stronger the requirement, the higher the likelihood that the professor and student have a higher degree of collaboration.  In such cases, the contract courses mix tutorial and class instruction, perhaps even to a greater extent than would a regular honors course.

On the other hand, if honors contract courses are the dominant element in the honors curriculum, it is difficult to see how the faculty involvement could reach the high level discussed above.  For if that level of involvement could be attained, why would it not result in more actual honors courses instead of an excess of contract courses?