UT honors programs struggle with diversity

By Alexis Tatum

AUSTIN–The University of Texas at Austin is among the top universities in the world. UT Austin has gained recognition as an inclusive and diverse campus because of policies like the Top Ten Percent rule, which grants automatic acceptance for students ranking at the top of their high schools, but honors students and faculty say that there’s room for improvement.

UT Austin offers six honors programs in liberal arts, business, natural sciences, and engineering. While ethnic race is considered in admission to colleges and schools within the university, it is not considered in the admissions process for any of UT’s honors programs. This means that the number of minority students admitted is generally unmonitored or influenced by the admissions councils. Each program, on average, accepts less than 30 percent of its applicants each year according to all six admissions offices. Unlike the general population of the school, UT honors programs do not publish yearly admissions data.

Last year’s common data set showed that nearly 50,000 students applied to UT Austin, but none of UT’s six honors programs received more than 2,000 applications. Less than 300 students are accepted into each honors program annually and minority students typically make up less than 15 percent of those accepted. The university has attributed this disparity to lack of communication and barriers in admission. Dr. Aileen Bumphus, the associate vice president of the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence, says that this issue has been overlooked for far too long.

“We do know that there is an underrepresentation of students of color in our honors programs, so that is certainly an area of concern,” Bumphus says.

Bumphus works in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, which seeks to encourage inclusivity within the core goals of the university. On March 30 of this year, DDCE took a big step towards their goal of inclusion by issuing a Diversity and Inclusion Plan for the first time in UT’s history.

The plan states that, “UT Austin will encourage high-achieving students to apply to honors programs by increasing communication and removing barriers, while also mitigating barriers to student access to high-demand majors in engineering, natural sciences, and business.”

Bumphis says that there are three separate items to be discussed in order to improve the number of applicants and diversity within the honors programs as well as the general population.

“[The first thing] is making contact with those students and letting them know what criteria is weighted more heavily; we need to be more transparent,” Bumphus says. “Secondly, we need to review how we recruit students and encourage them to apply. Students often will not apply because they assume they’re unqualified. Finally, we need to examine how diverse the incoming classes are overall. [Honors programs] are at a disadvantage when, in those small cohorts, there is no diversity of thinking. There is no diversity of experience.”

Madison Searle, director of the College of Natural Sciences Honors Program, emphasizes the struggle to remain small and inclusive, features that are almost opposite in terms of admission. He says that CNS honors has lost minority students due to lack of representation, a problem he considers serious.

“In terms of racial and ethnic diversity, the College of Natural Sciences is pretty close to the average at UT,” Searle says. “The honors programs are struggling to match those numbers. We are working to improve diversity, but it is important that we keep our programs small, otherwise you lost the community sense. The advantage of UT is its size and the disadvantage of UT is its size.”

The honors programs have differing requirements for their holistic admissions. Resumes, letters of recommendation, volunteer service and even separate applications are necessary based on which honors program a student is applying to.

Each program has its own way of reaching out to both high school and first year students, according to Nathan Hsu, a Business Honors Program (BHP) student associate.

“Leadership and extracurricular involvement are important for getting into BHP, I know that it’s different for other programs,” Hsu says. “Different paths require different prerequisites, so it makes sense.”

Despite their small numbers, students of color within the honors programs are taking the imbalance into their own hands. Liberal Arts Honors (LAH), for example, has an action committee dedicated to improving the experience and admission of minority students in the program. One of the directors, Jacob Hood, explains the importance of the organization to his experience in Liberal Arts Honors.

“It got started last semester as a focus group just to talk about diversity issues in LAH and issues we’d had with administration, classes, and not feeling represented at all,” Hood says.

Bumphus says it is important to introduce minority students to honors programs because, despite feeling like they are not good enough, they may be just what the program needs.

“An applicant may think, ‘oh I’m probably not qualified enough for that,’ but that student may be just what the program needs,” Bumphus says. “Plus, the benefits of all these programs are worth the effort to apply.”

Much like their exclusive admissions processes, UT’s honors programs all have exclusive benefits, many of which vary by program. Benefits include departmental scholarships, access to exclusive resources in graduate programs, and special housing in the center of campus.

Jacob Hood is an example of the type of student Bumphus referenced. He says that after administrative personnel came to a meeting, new and inclusive upper division classes were established in the LAH curriculum.

“This semester we have a new associate director who is black and is the first person of color to be working out of that office,” Hood says. “We also have more diverse offerings in our upper division like classes about inequality in the education system, African American families and things like that.”

UT Austin has made improvements in diversity since the inclusion of programs like Affirmative Action. While these improvements are considered progressive, Hood believes the university can do better.

“I definitely think that other honors programs need to make changes as well to include and accommodate minority students,” Hood says. “We should have our voices heard.”

Alexis Tatum is a second year Journalism and Plan II Honors major at the University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached by email at alexistatum@utexas.edu or on Twitter @tatumalexis.