Diversity at the Honors College: not so special

A Civic Project story

Whitmyre Hall's head community assistant, Ignacio J. "Nacho" Alarcon, talks with community assistant Paige A. Peterson at an Honors College social event on Nov. 29. Photo by Emily Weber.

Whitmyre Hall’s head community assistant, Ignacio J. “Nacho” Alarcon, talks with community assistant Paige A. Peterson at an Honors College social event on Nov. 29. Photo by Emily Weber.

By Emily Weber

INDIANA — In the middle of a class discussion about socioeconomic status, Ignacio J. “Nacho” Alarcón, 20, a philosophy major in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s  Robert E. Cook Honors College, found himself a minority in more ways than one. When the professor asked the 20 students seated around the long table in Whitmyre Hall’s ornate Painting Room to evaluate the diversity of their peers, many turned to look at Alarcón.

“I was one of a few men,” Alarcón said in a Nov. 2 interview in Whitmyre. “And the only person who wasn’t white.”

As the head community assistant for Whitmyre, a traditional residence hall where first-year Honors College students are required to live, Alarcón knows almost all of the 302 students in the Honors College.

“It speaks volumes to the diversity within our environment when the freshmen class possesses a five-to-one female-to-male ratio and, with respect to the entire Honors College, a vast Caucasian majority,” Alarcón said. “Clearly, I don’t mean to imply that the HC is a bigoted institution. But I feel that a great deal can be gained by experiencing diversity on a number of levels.”

IUP’s honors program admits about 100 freshmen every year, according to the Honors College website. Typical Honors College students rank in the top 10 percent of their high-school graduating class and earn a combined math and critical reading score of 1300 out of 1600 on the SAT.

IUP’s average SAT score is 1,000, according to its website.

Any IUP student who meets honors-program admission requirements is eligible for the Honors College, regardless of major. But by two measures of diversity, race and gender, the Honors College underrepresents students like Alarcón.

COMPARED TO the racial diversity of IUP undergraduates overall, the Honors College is home to few minorities. Of the 13,058 IUP undergraduates enrolled in fall 2012, 78 percent (10,185 students) were white, according to data provided by Chris M. Kitas, associate director of IUP’s Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment, in an Oct. 30 email The remaining 22 percent were African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander or members of other minority groups.

In the Honors College, 87 percent of the 302 students enrolled in fall 2012 were white, according to data provided in an Oct. 15 email by Cook Honors College marketing coordinator Tiffanie J. Fordyce. The remaining 13 percent described themselves as minorities or did not provide this information in the applicationprocess.

This came as no surprise to Nicholas Marsellas, 20, a sophomore English major at IUP and a student in the Honors College.

“I would have thought it was less diverse than the rest of IUP,” he said in an Oct. 18 interview at the Writing Center in Eicher Hall. “My own group of HC friends is not very diverse.”

The director of the Honors College, English professor Janet E. Goebel, gave several reasons for the lack of racial diversity in an Oct. 26 interview in her Whitmyre office. In some cases, minority students may not report their race when applying for the Honors College, she said. In other cases, prospective minority students “just get better offers” from other universities.

“If you’re a strong minority student, you have so many options,” Goebel said. “Other universities have more resources at their disposal. We just don’t have a history of donor money and scholarships for these students.”

Racial diversity has improved since the first class of Honors College students graduated in 2000. Goebel said that after an initial program evaluation in that year, minorities made up 5 percent of the Honors College students while IUP was between 6 and 7 percent that year.

Now minority students make up 13 percent of the Honors College, compared to 22 percent among IUP undergraduates.

She said the Honors College admissions process has deliberately created other kinds of diversity. Home-school, out-of-state and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students are more common among the honors population than the general student body, Goebel said. The Honors College application does not ask students to provide this information.

Nevertheless, Christkelly A. Dornevil, 19, a sophomore economics and journalism major, said in an Oct. 21 instant message interview that she likes “giving the Whitmyre people an educated view on black people.” The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Dornevil said misperceptions about the Honors College present a challenge to maintaining racial diversity.

“A lot of students refuse to join the HC because they believe it interferes with their school and social lives,” Dornevil said. “I know plenty of smart students who are minorities (not only black) who refused the offer to the HC.” 

THE GENDER ratio in the Honors College also does not match IUP’s, according to data provided by Fordyce and Kitas.

In fall 2012, 55 percent of IUP’s undergraduates were female. In the same year, females made up 74 percent of Honors College students.

Goebel said there are typically equal numbers of humanities and science, technology and mathematics students. The gender gap is better explained by the nature of the program than by the subjects offered in the Honors College core curriculum.

“This is a nurturing program,” she said. “Students are members of a community. Males might want more independence and opportunities for independent work compared to females.”

In recent years, most Honors College recruitment staff and volunteers have been female, Goebel said. This might also attract female high school students.

Marsellas said he attributes the gender gap to the fact that Honors College core courses are based primarily around humanities subjects instead of science, mathematics and technology, which are traditionally male-oriented subjects.

“I hate to stereotype, but the Honors College attracts only nerdy guys,” he said. “Women are more easily forgiven for being smart, but guys are expected to be reluctantly just above par.”

Dornevil said she too noticed the gender gap.

“It’s kind of scary,” she said. “So much estrogen.”

Lindsey S. Quakenbush, 20, a junior English major at IUP, said she was surprised to discover a majority of women in the Honors College.

“I always thought there were fairly equal numbers of males and females,” she said in an Oct. 18 Skype interview. “It makes me wonder how that actually happened.” 

THE ISSUE of diversity among honors or gifted student groups is not isolated to IUP or western Pennsylvania. The National Collegiate Honors Council, a professional association of undergraduate honors colleges and programs, has found a nationwide discrepancy between racial and gender diversity of institutions and their honors programs or colleges.

In a 2010 survey of 17 institutions with honors programs, the council found that “despite the diversity in size and geography of our respondents, underrepresented groups such as ethnic minorities, GLBTQ [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and queer] students, international, and non-traditional students seem to be underrepresented in honors programs and colleges.”

The study cites an average 5.5 percent gap between institution-wide enrollment of black students and black students enrolled in honors programs and colleges. At IUP, the gap is about 6 percent, according to data provided by Fordyce and the Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment’s common data set.

Emily Weber, a junior journalism and English major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Souderton.


Sidebar: Honors diversity, compared

A comparison of the honors program diversity at three other western region Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education universities puts the Robert E. Cook Honors College just ahead of the pack.

Clarion University of Pennsylvania: 160 students
74 percent female, 26 percent male
90 percent Caucasian, 4 percent African American, 6 percent other

Edinboro University: 171 students
73 percent female, 26 percent male
92 percent Caucasian, 2 percent African-American, 2 percent Asian, 4 percent other

Slippery Rock University: 300 students
75 percent female, 25 percent male
95 percent Caucasian, 5 percent minority students

Indiana University of Pennsylvania: 302 students
74 percent female, 26 percent male
87 percent Caucasian, 13 percent minority students

California University of Pennsylvania did not provide data beyond the current freshman class.


Sidebar: How this story was reported

This story was reported by Emily Weber, a journalism major enrolled in the fall 2012 News Reporting class at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s journalism department. Weber is a junior in the Robert E. Cook Honors College.


Sidebar: For more info

For more information on this story or to get involved with the IUP Honors College, please contact the following sources:

Janet Goebel
Robert E. Cook Honors College
136 Whitmyre Hall
290 Pratt Drive
Indiana, PA 15705
Office: 724-357-4971
E-mail: jgoebel@iup.edu

Kevin Berezansky
Associate Director
Robert E. Cook Honors College
141 Whitmyre Hall
290 Pratt Drive
Indiana, PA 15705
Email: kevinb@iup.edu

Tiffanie Fordyce
Marketing Coordinator
Robert E. Cook Honors College
138 Whitmyre Hall
290 Pratt Drive
Indiana, PA 15705
Email: tfordyce@iup.edu

Christopher Kitas
Associate Director
IUP Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment
Sutton Hall, Room 401
1011 South Drive
Indiana, PA 15705
Email: ckitas@iup.edu

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