Last fall, high school students coveting a spot in one of the College of Natural Sciences’ selective honors programs — Dean’s Scholars, Health Science Scholars, and Polymathic Scholars — were faced with an unorthodox question: “A common criticism of college honors programs is that they attract privileged and/or entitled students … How do you respond to this point of view?”
In advancing this question, the college has introduced a commendable new paradigm, one that provides social consciousness with newfound significance in the admissions process. More colleges and programs should adopt this line of questioning, asking students to address civic issues with a conscientious, even self-critical eye.
The prompt emerged out of a desire to see students respond thoughtfully to the criticisms honors programs face, according to Madison Searle, interim director of CNS Honors.
In the prompt, “entitlement” relates to concerns that honors programs “attract applicants who regard themselves as inherently superior to others outside the community,” Searle wrote in an email. “‘Privileged’ speaks to socioeconomic status, quality of schools, and other factors that can shape how a person learns and develops.”
Both the criticism and the prompt come at a salient time. Socioeconomic status is, by countless metrics, a driver of educational attainment. The achievement gap between children in the top and bottom decile of the income distribution widened by 40 percent in the last 25 years. A third of the differences in students’ attained SAT scores can be explained by income, parental education and race. Public schools have become more socioeconomically segregated as well, a function of selective admissions in magnet or private high schools and zoning rules that price low-income students out of quality schools.
And in raising the question of socioeconomic status to students, honors programs might also address the elitist culture they project. It is all too easy to attribute one’s accomplishments to individual merit, hard work, quietly ignoring the lottery of birth. But if disadvantaged students are hardly culpable for their lack of attainment, how culpable could affluent students be for their accolades?
Finally, a concern among all elite institutions is that they reproduce the socioeconomic stratifications that feed them — well-off inputs to well-off outputs. Business Honors students, for example, have a starting salary $6,000 higher than that of the next highest earners.
“We are often thinking about the privilege that these programs bestow upon our students … are we just simply passing on what students came with, or are we actually doing something to enhance or build that social capital?” said Richard Reddick, associate director of Plan II Honors.
CNS Honors’ new prompt for next year’s prospective class is transparent about this problem. It asks students to address the fact that honors programs are criticized for admitting too few students from non-traditional or disadvantaged backgrounds.
Naturally, there are hurdles and misunderstandings when programs first present these questions. Many applicants to the first prompt felt like they were being criticized and responded defensively, Searle said.
But there is value in asking applicants to engage with social issues outside of their private spheres. The dual functions of the admissions process are to determine who gets in as well as convey the institution’s values, according to former admissions counselor Lloyd Thacker. By adopting more socially conscious, critical prompts, institutions will benefit on both accounts.
Sun is a business honors and government junior from Sugarland. Follow her on twitter @sun_diane