Cultural and Interpersonal Factors Affecting African American Academic Performance in Higher Education: A Review and Synthesis of the Research Literature

Article excerpt

The disparity in educational outcomes between majority White and minority African American populations has become known as the African American achievement gap. The authors examine the under performance of African American university students by providing an overview of the major cultural, communication, and learning style characteristics of Black students and the schooling conditions and practices at predominantly White universities. By not teaching based on diversity, professors may be unintentionally setting up some students for frustration and possible failure.


The minority achievement gap remains one of the most pressing and perplexing problems in U.S. education today. Diverse and sustained research is needed to gain a better understanding of the persistent academic under achievement of minority students in U.S. higher education (Alien, 1985). The research literature suggests that efforts to close the academic achievement gap between racial minority and Caucasian students have been largely unsuccessful and that differences in educational performance persist at all achievement levels-the greatest gap between students of color, and their White and Asian American peers with higher achievement levels (Schwartz, 2000).

The reasons for this lack of minority student progress are not entirely clear and many causes have been suggested to include claims that the hip-hop and "gangsta" cultures, as popularized by the media, and the general move away from the more positive images of Blacks, may have contributed to greater sentiments of apathy and alienation of young Blacks in a misdirected attempt to reaffirm Black culture (Boyd, 1997). Additionally, during the Reagan administration, the Black inner-city communities were hard hit by government economic and social policies, which rolled back many of The Great Society programs of the Johnson administration (Patillo-McCoy, 1999). Affirmative action came under attack as more conservative voices arose in both the White and Black communities regarding equity and the issue of the social advancement of Black people (McWhorter, 2000). At the same time, the urban economy lost more jobs previously held by Blacks in factories to ones in technologies, located primarily in the White suburbs (Boyd, 1997). Moreover, the following factors are frequently mentioned in the research literature as contributing to the achievement gap: limited education levels of parents, students' lack of access to high-quality preschool and K-12 education, weak study habits, negative peer influences, White faculty and administrators who have low-academic expectations of Blacks, Eurocentric curricula and pedagogy, poor campus racial climate, relatively limited financial resources among many Black college students, and the absence of a strong and relatively large core of Black students on campus (e.g., Bennett, 2002; Hale-Benson, 1986; McWhorter, 2000; "Persisting Racial Gap," 2004).

While many educational researchers focus on examining student achievement in the K-12 student population, the U.S. still struggles to bridge the achievement gap in higher education (e.g., Wilds, 2000). Fewer African Americans go on to college than White high school graduates 39 % versus 44 % among 18 to 24 year olds (Haycock, Jerald, & Huang, 2001), and many of those who do well academically on predominantly White campuses exhibit a marked decrease in performance from their high school grades beyond what is expected for adjustment to college-level work (Alien, 1985). Moreover, Black students obtain college degrees at substantially lower rates than White students (Haycock, Jerald, & Huang, 2001; Hoffman, LIagas, & Snyder, 2003), and many of those students who do earn degrees take longer than the traditional four years (Forte, 2002). The nationwide college graduation rate for Black students is a distressing 40% ("Persisting Racial Gap," 2004). This figure is 21 percentage points below the 61 % rate for White students. …