Much has been written in recent years about how selective, elite colleges foster the inequities of our educational system. The success of these institutions depends on the perpetuation of certain myths that are deeply ingrained in the American ethos. It is a myth that attendance at one of these institutions is a surer guarantee of success than attendance at a public or less selective school. It is a myth that the students accepted into these institutions are the smartest, most talented and most capable students in the country. It is a myth that the selection process for admission into these institutions is purely meritocratic. The process undoubtedly favors students from advantaged backgrounds in its reliance on test scores and impressive resumés. Such showcases of accomplishments and involvements are often an outcome, not of pure talent and motivation, but of opportunity that exists because of a student’s family background, socioeconomic status or even geographic location.
What is the responsibility of a public institution like the University of Connecticut to address the educational inequities in our country when private, elite institutions have so clearly failed to do so? More specifically, how can a selective program at a public institution like the Honors Program at UConn, fulfill its responsibility to provide opportunities for students who are academically advanced in a way that does not further enlarge educational inequities?
First, any program reliant upon on a meritocratic selection system needs to recognize inequality in society will cause any selection system to widen educational inequities in some capacity. Inevitably students from advantaged backgrounds, who have had opportunities and resources to advance their talents and skills earlier on, will be favored. There will be students of equal or greater capabilities who do not get selected because they have not had opportunities to develop their talents in ways that can be translated onto resumes or high school transcripts.
A program such as the Honors Program at UConn, that relies on a meritocratic selection system, must be self-aware if it wants to be dedicated to reducing educational inequities. It must recognize the limits of its selection system and build the program around a framework that is conscious of these limits. Certain aspects of the UConn Honors Program do suggest a consciousness of these limits. Application to the program is not restricted to high school seniors; students currently at UConn can apply. Honors core classes are not exclusively for honors students but are also open to other motivated, interested students at UConn.
Yet if the program truly wants to be dedicated to reducing educational inequities, it must also consider itself responsible for equipping its students to do so. The insistence of the Honors Program to house all first-year honors students together evades this responsibility. Honors students cannot be equipped to reduce educational inequity if they are not even aware of educational inequity.
How can they be made aware of the shortcomings of the meritocratic system in a society plagued by inequality, and how can they be made aware of the privilege of their own opportunities if they are led to believe that one of the privileges of being an honors student is that they get to live in a dorm separate from other freshman at UConn? How can they be expected to consciously reject elitist attitudes towards their place in society as educated individuals if they are told that “it is a vital part of [their] academic success, personal development and successful transition to college” to live with other students who have been selected into the Honors Program? How can they be challenged to broaden their notions of success beyond that which is promised by selective educational programs if they live separately from students who do not enter the university with the same expectations of opportunities that are assured to honors students?
The Honors Program at UConn needs to address these questions. The failure of the private, elite institutions to stop perpetuating educational inequity creates an opportunity for selective programs at public institutions to be the ones to finally do so. The UConn Honors Program should step up to the challenge.
Sharon Spaulding is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.