Honors programs benefit from diversity of experiences

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Photo Credit: Jeb Milling | Daily Texan Staff

Last December, Uri Treisman and David Laude convened an outreach committee of faculty, staff and students interested in recruiting more students of color, students from families with modest incomes and students whose parents didn’t attend college, to honors programs in the College of Natural Sciences. Each group is significantly underrepresented in most, if not all, UT-Austin honors programs, including ours.

Since most of the committee consisted of faculty, many of whom were first-generation college students themselves, the meeting’s goal was to find ways that faculty could help in recruitment. But the scope of discussion soon widened to the identity and purpose of our programs. 

What do faculty expect from honors students? What is an honors student?

How do faculty encourage honors students to not be satisfied with checking boxes and acing tests, but to take risks? 

How do those who aspire to be in these programs learn what faculty find inspiring in students? 

How can faculty and administrators take apart the idea that there’s something intrinsic in students whom we want in these programs? How can we convey that honors students aren’t born but develop, and frequently, develop late? Or do we want to create groups that from the start are defined in part by their exclusivity?

It’s no secret that many honors students are proud of their program’s exclusivity. If the selection criteria are rooted in merit, why shouldn’t they be?  

But honors programs can exclude in ways that have nothing to do with merit. Several of the faculty on the recruitment committee who’d been the first in their family to attend college said they would not have checked the “interested in honors” box when they applied to college. “I would have thought, ‘That’s not me,’” one said. Another said, “A lot of kids from poorer schools can’t imagine themselves as honors students here. They disqualify themselves.” One of the honors students who’d transferred into honors after his first year at UT-Austin said, “I didn’t know anything in high school about college honors programs. It didn’t even occur to me to apply.”

The committee didn’t ask why a self-respecting student might even want to be in an honors program, but it’s a good question. In the case of CNS Honors, three reasons stand out: a rigorous curriculum designed to stretch students, more opportunities for contact and collaboration with faculty in small seminars and labs and a stimulating community of curious, bright and motivated peers. For someone turned on by learning, each is a serious perk. But there’s no question in my mind that for most students, what they gain from each other is the most lasting.

Diversity in honors programs — particularly, honors programs in public universities —  tends to be framed in moral terms, and I myself see it in that light. We have an obligation to ensure that the substantive advantages of belonging to one of our programs are not limited to an elite cadre of students who’ve not only worked hard and excelled in school but have been conspicuously privileged in one way or another. My greatest fear for our programs is that they become another lever that widens the already-widening gulf in the United States between those who have and those who have less.

But the benefits of diversity and the costs of disproportionately privileged groups are not confined to the underrepresented. The honors community itself, the most significant perk of honors programs, is impoverished if it lacks the experiences and perspectives of peers from different backgrounds. Diversity, for those who already belong, is about being educated. 

We’re some distance from creating the diverse communities that the faculty, advisers and administrators who work with honors students want to see. But we’re taking steps — the outreach committee is one of several. At their best, honors programs will reflect the rich variety of cultures and backgrounds that make up our larger communities as well as be havens of respect for all. We are committed to achieving both. 

Searle is the director of the College of Natural Sciences Honors Center.