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?








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