Record number of CNS honors program applications follow diversity initiatives

Catherine Vincent

The applications submitted for the College of Natural Sciences honors programs hit a record amount this year, with over 4,000 applicants so far, and the initiatives to increase diversity are likely the cause, said Madison Searle, director of the CNS Honors Center. The programs, which include Dean’s Scholars, Health Science Scholars and Polymathic Scholars, have all made changes to their application process to increase diversity.

David Hillis, director of the Dean’s Scholars Honors Program, said CNS honors programs have actively worked for many years to revise their admissions criteria and procedures to improve the diversity of students who apply to and participate in the programs.

“Science needs to involve a broad cross-section of society,” Hillis said. “By emphasizing diversity at the undergraduate level, we help increase diversity at later stages of the educational pipeline — graduate school and beyond.”

Searle said diversity in the honors programs still isn’t where it needs to be. 

“Like every other honors program at UT and … in the country, there is a historical underrepresentation of students of color and students from Pell-eligible households, which means households that make $50,000 or less,” Searle said.

Last year, only 20 percent of the applicants were students of color, with first-generation college applicants representing 13 percent, Searle said. He said they anticipate a better outlook this year.

Two years ago, the CNS Honors Center created two committees, one of faculty and one of students, with the sole mission of improving recruitment of those populations to CNS honors programs, Searle said. The committees found that the root cause of the diversity problem is not that minority students are unqualified for admission, but that they tend to disqualify themselves from consideration.

“One of the things I’ve learned in the past year from the student committee, which consists primarily of students of color that are already in honors, is that they themselves didn’t think that they were qualified for an college honors program while they were in high school,” Searle said.

Physics freshman Julian Sennette, a physics freshman in the CNS Honors Diversity Committee, is one of two African-American members out of 170 students in Dean’s Scholars. He said he experienced this exact obstacle in applying.

“I almost didn’t apply because I was sure that I wouldn’t get in,” Sennette said. “I heard about the program from two Dean’s Scholars, and they were both valedictorians of their high schools. I’m still struggling to accept the fact that I got in.”

In May of this year, the student committee reviewed the application and admissions process, and aimed to remove the obstacles that were preventing qualified students from applying to all CNS honors programs.

One of the most important improvements was moving the honors application from a separate website to the main ApplyTexas portal, Searle said. This made it easier to apply by increasing awareness about the program and its requirements. 

Searle said they also eliminated one of the more difficult essays on the application to make applying less intimidating and more accessible to students who don’t have the resources available to tackle it.

“These new changes, plus all the changes made before, have really made (the application) more accessible to minority students, which I’m really happy about,” Sennette said.

Sennette hopes that more minority students will now apply to CNS honors programs.

“Minority students shouldn’t be afraid of applying to honors,” Sennette said. “I really love the community, and it’s definitely worth it to apply.”