How Many of Those Honors Classes are Restricted to Honors Students Only?

Editor’s Note: Thanks to honors Deans and Directors from across the country, we received more data than ever before in 2016. Most of the data appear in our new book, but periodically we will report on other discoveries that we did not have time to include.

We have written about honors classes several times, having reported on average class sizes and the various types of honors class sections–honors seminars, honors-only classes in the disciplines, mixed honors classes (honors and non-honors students), and contract sections, in which honors students do extra work in a regular class for honors credit.

Before presenting data that show the percentage of class work honors students do in the various class types, here is a brief recap on the average class sizes of honors sections, based on actual, detailed data from 50 major honors programs:

  • Honors-only class section size= 19.0 students
  • Mixed sections for honors credit= 51.1 students
  • Contract sections for honors credit= 60.1 students
  • OVERALL average size of class sections for honors credit= 26.3 students

But now for the additional, unpublished data.

Since class sizes vary significantly according to the type of class section, here is a summary of the percentage of classroom time that honors students spend in the different section types:

  • In 22 of the 50 programs we rated, all honors credit sections were “honors-only” sections (no mixed or contract sections).
  • Across all 50 programs, 83.1% of enrollment time was in honors-only sections.
  • 13.6% of enrollment time was in mixed sections that included both honors and non-honors students. Many of these sections had separate honors-only breakout or lab components.
  • The remaining 5.1% of enrollment time was in contract sections, in which students in regular classes had to complete extra work for honors credit.

Honors-only classes may be seminars that are generally interdisciplinary, or more discipline-specific classes.

  • Our findings show that 45.8% of honors-only classes are seminars are interdisciplinary sections, which are typically offered through the honors college or program itself.
  • The remaining 54.2% of honors-only classes are centered on the academic disciplines, many offered directly by the academic departments.



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.