The Role of Perceptions of Prejudice and Discrimination on the Adjustment of Minority Students to College

Article excerpt

College participation by minority students declined in the middle 1980s following a period of sustained growth [21]. This trend was particularly evident among African Americans and Hispanics [46] who exhibited both the lowest participation rates as well as the highest propensity to drop out from college. Porter's [45] analyses of the high-school senior class of 1980, for instance, revealed that Hispanic college students were 13 percent more prone to withdraw from college than were white students, whereas African American college students were 22 percent more likely to drop out than their white counterparts over a six-year period. These low persistence rates (even over extended periods of enrollment in college) are particularly troublesome from a policy perspective given the relationship that the attainment of a bachelor's degree has on subsequent occupational and economic attainment [44].

Several reasons have been advanced to account for these trends. Hauser and Anderson [21] explored the extent to which declines in college participation rates could be attributed to changes in college aspirations as well as to changes in high-school completion rates among African Americans. After analyzing college aspiration trends for both minorities and nonminorities over a period of thirty years and taking into account high-school completion rates and indicators of socioeconomic status, Hauser and Anderson could not find support for this hypothesis. Other researchers have speculated that the decline could be attributed to changes in the composition of federal assistance and to patterns of financing higher education exhibited by minority students. Porter [45] noted that declines in minorities' college participation rates correlated with the growth of student loans at the expense of grants. Olivas [41], Mortenson and Wu [31], and Mortenson [30] observed that African American and Hispanic students were less willing to go into debt to finance their college education than were white students. Moreover, Ekstrom [19] helped to establish and test the proposition that students willing to go into debt to finance their education were more likely to enroll and persist in college.

An alternative explanation to the role of finances in the persistence process has stressed the influence of academic preparation for college. Tinto [56] argued that overall differences in persistence rates between minorities and nonminorities were primarily due to differences in their academic preparedness rather than differences in their socioeconomic backgrounds. Tinto further contended that these ability differences arise from prior educational experiences at the elementary and secondary educational levels which tend to favor the educational achievement of nonminorities relative to minorities. Some degree of support has been given to this hypothesis. St. John, Kirshstein, and Noell [50], for instance, reported that the effects of ethnicity disappeared once academic preparation for college was taken into account for the high-school class of 1980.

The proposition that a lack of adjustment to predominantly white institutions and that perceptions of prejudice (racial climate) may lower the quality of college experiences of minority students has emerged as a competing explanation for the differences in persistence rates between minority and nonminority college students [for example, 1, 18, 23, 24, 28, 34, 35, 36, 53]. Fleming [18], in particular, has argued that adjustment problems with the curriculum, lack of support services, financial problems and the nature of interpersonal relationships with faculty, peers and academic staff are some of the experiences that negatively impact minority students attending predominantly white institutions. Likewise, Tracey and Sedlacek [57, 58, 59] have contended that noncognitive factors (that is, self-concept, an understanding of racism, and the ability to cope with it) play a more critical role in shaping academic performance in college and persistence decisions among minority students than do cognitive factors such as academic ability and study habits. …