Impact of Exposure to Community Violence and Psychological Symptoms on College Performance among Students of Color

By Rosenthal, Beth Spenciner; Wilson, W. Cody | Adolescence, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Impact of Exposure to Community Violence and Psychological Symptoms on College Performance among Students of Color


Rosenthal, Beth Spenciner, Wilson, W. Cody, Adolescence


This paper is concerned with the longitudinal relationships among exposure to chronic community violence during the high school years, the level of psychological distress manifested during the first semester of college, and academic performance during the first three semesters of college. The concern stems from a set of three widely held assumptions: (1) there is a high level of exposure to chronic community violence for some adolescents; (2) exposure to community violence has a large impact on level of psychosocial adjustment; and (3) the presence of psychological distress impairs academic performance.

The first two of these assumptions led to the identification of exposure to chronic community violence as a public health problem among adolescents in the early 1990s (Centers for Disease Control, 1993; Earls, 1992; Hausman, Spivak, & Prothrow-Stith, 1994; Koop & Lundberg, 1992; Reiss, 1993; Richters, 1993; Shalala, 1993). Recent findings indicate that adolescents do have considerable exposure to chronic community violence: an estimated one and three-quarter million Americans aged 12 years and over were victims of nonsexual, nonfatal crimes according to the National Crime Victims Survey of 1998 (Rennison, 1999); the likelihood of being a victim of personal crime is greater for adolescents, for individuals living in a large urban center, for poor individuals, and for Blacks (Rennison, 1999); and adolescents of high school age have much more exposure to robbery and assault than do younger adolescents and adults (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1994; Lowry, Sleet, Duncan, Powell, & Kobler, 1995; Rand, 1998). Empirical evidence is also beginning to accumulate indicating that exposure to community violence is related to posttraumatic psychological distress among high school and beginning college students in urban settings (Rosenthal, 2000; Rosenthal & Wilson, 2001).

The empirical evidence regarding the third assumption, however, is sparse (Heiligenstein, Guenther, Hsu, & Herman, 1996) and the relationship between general psychopathology and academic performance among college students has not been established (Brackney & Karabenick, 1995). Indeed, recent evidence is conflicting: two studies found a small but statistically significant negative correlation between depression and same-semester grade point average (GPA) among college students (Fazio & Palm, 1998; Haines, Norris, & Kashy, 1996), but three studies found no relationship between psychological distress and same-semester GPA (Svanum & Zody, 2001; Trice, Holland, & Gagne, 2000; Trockel, Barnes, & Egget, 2000).

This set of three assumptions (adolescents have high levels of exposure to community violence, exposure to community violence produces psychological disturbance, and psychological distress impairs academic performance) implies a causal chain model, with psychological distress mediating the relationship between exposure to community violence and academic performance. The model leaves open the issue of whether there is a direct relationship between exposure to community violence and academic performance, or only the indirect relationship mediated by psychological distress. The hypotheses investigated in the present study were as follows: (1) the amount of exposure to chronic community violence in high school is related to academic performance during the first and second years of college, and (2) the level of psychological symptoms reported by beginning first-year college students is related to academic performance in the first and second years of college.

The empirical findings reported above, that exposure to community violence is especially concentrated among poor adolescents from ethnic minority groups living in a large urban area, suggest that the phenomena we are interested in will most fully manifest themselves within a special subgroup of the larger American population: students of color. …

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