Ethnically Diverse College Students' Psychological Sense of Community: Do Their Perceptions of Campus Racial Climate Influence It?

Article excerpt

Colleges often seek to promote a psychological sense of community (PSOC) among their students. However, there is limited research on factors promoting PSOC, and little empirical evidence on whether students of different ethnic backgrounds might experience PSOC differently. This study, which took place on a predominantly White campus, explored whether ethnically diverse students' perceptions of racial climate contributed to their PSOC, after controlling for other variables that predict sense of community. Regression analyses demonstrated that racial climate was related to PSOC for students of color, a trend that also was nearly significant for White students. We discuss implications of the findings, highlighting suggestions for campuses interested in enhancing PSOC for students of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Colleges frequently are encouraged to promote a psychological sense of community (PSOC), or the perception among students that they belong in a setting and are involved harmoniously with others there (e.g., McDonald, 2002; Spitzberg & Thorndike, 1992). There are limited studies of PSOC in educational settings (see Berger, 1997; Lounsbury & DeNeui, 1995). However, extant research points to positive outcomes for students with high levels of PSOC in elementary school (Solomon, Watson, Battistich, Schaps, & Delucchi, 1996), middle and high school (Pretty, Conroy, Dugay, Fowler, & Williams, 1996; Royal & Rossi, 1996), and college (Berger, 1997; McCarthy, Pretty, & Catano, 1990). Thus the goal of promoting students' PSOC appears to be laudable.

Yet colleges seeking to enhance PSOC will find limited help from social scientists. Previous research primarily has demonstrated that a number of personal factors are associated with an enhanced PSOC, a construct that is often defined and measured in diverse ways. Variables that have predicted higher levels of PSOC include:

Demographic variables. In a study of students at 23 colleges, females were more likely to experience higher levels of campus PSOC, probably because they are more sociable than males (Lounsbury & DeNeui, 1995). Out-of-state residency also was associated with higher PSOC, possibly because students living farther from their universities have no other ties. Advanced students (i.e., seniors) had lower sense of community, possibly because they were disengaging from campus life. Students living on campus also tended to have higher levels of PSOC.

Big Five personality characteristics. Four of the "Big Five" - neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness - were related to PSOC in one study of college students, making the authors question whether PSOC is primarily a personality construct rather than a community one (Lounsbury, Loveland, & Gibson, 2003). Extraversion may be particularly important, as its correlation was strongest (Lounsbury et al.) and other studies also have demonstrated its link to PSOC among college students (DeNeui, 2003; Lounsbury & DeNeui, 1996).

Involvement. Being involved in campus organizations is related to PSOC, with students participating in more campus activities having greater sense of community (DeNeui, 2003). Interpersonal support also is associated with higher PSOC (Pretty, 1990).

While many studies focus on students' traits that might contribute to PSOC, one characteristic that has received limited attention is ethnicity. Psychological sense of community traditionally has been studied and found in homogeneous settings (Dalton, Elias, & Wandersman, 2001), which is not the makeup of most college campuses. Thus the ethnic diversity of campuses may result in students of varying backgrounds experiencing PSOC differently; students of color in particular may be likely to have a distinct experience from their White counterparts on predominantly White campuses. However, this assumption is without empirical support.

One potential influence on students' PSOC is their perception of racial climate for diversity at their institutions. …