Diversity Opportunities for Higher Education and Honors Programs: A View from Nebraska

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INTRODUCTION

While honors programs were developed in part to actively engage top students in undergraduate education, they also have demonstrated a capacity for leading innovation in post-secondary institutions. Innovations come in the form of curricular development, service learning programs, and independent scholarship. As institutions strive to find effective approaches to improving access to and diversity in higher education, honors programs, in a most general sense, offer a link between diversity and improved access. This paper explores the role of honors programs in expanding access and diversity-an area traditionally focused on broader student populations. Demographic changes in Nebraska, marked by increased ethnic diversity, offer an intriguing example of how honors programs might better embrace diversity.

The importance of higher education in society centers on the notion of equitable opportunity for all. Inclusionary participation provides an essential element in the mythical hope that America offers to people here and abroad. Since the presidency of Andrew Jackson, American society has embraced the belief that people with skills and ambition can rise from the most humble beginnings to the pinnacle of success. This fundamental principle underlies our public education system, which was founded to provide the basic educational foundation necessary for participation in society and the economy. Trow (1989) observed that "...the expansion and democratization of higher education may also work to legitimate the political and social order by rewarding talent and effort rather than serving merely as a cultural apparatus of the ruling classes by ensuring the passage of power and privilege across generations" (p. 19). Half a century ago, a series of presidential commissions considered this issue:

   American society is a democracy: that is, its folkways and
   institutions, its arts and sciences and religions are based on the
   principle of equal freedom and equal rights for all its members,
   regardless of race, faith, sex, occupation, or economic status. The
   law of the land, providing equal justice for the poor as well as the
   rich, for the weak as well as the strong, is one instrument by which
   a democratic society establishes, maintains, and protects this
   equality among different persons and groups. The other instrument is
   education, which, as all the leaders in the making of democracy have
   pointed out again and again, is necessary to give effect to the
   equality prescribed by law. (Report of the President's Commission
   on Higher Education, 1947, p. 759)

The message of 1947 still retains its importance at the beginning of the twenty-first century even as the nation absorbs people from other lands. The legal and political systems are challenged to develop and apply just laws to a changing cultural landscape, and colleges and universities continue the decades-long struggle to expand access to post-secondary education. In the latter case, most attention has been focused on recruiting students from various social and ethnic backgrounds into college through affirmative action programs and flexible admissions criteria. While such methods have had some success at drawing students into colleges, they have not been an effective measure for so-called performance-driven honors programs. In other words, honors programs typically rely on the quantitative evaluative indicators of class rank, grade point average, and ACT or SAT scores. Moving beyond traditional indicators, however, expands the potential for diversity and better fulfills the social contract.

Further, it should not be assumed that honors programs are separate from the social contract equation. James Hearn (1991) underscored the importance of looking beyond simple access to higher education:

   ... because attending a more selective, resource-rich institution
   has been associated with measurable positive impacts on educational
   attainment, income attainment, status attainment, and socially
   valued aspects of citizenship, the issues of who attends such
   institutions and how attendance patterns at such institutions
   change over time are of both policy and theoretical importance. …