Value Orientations: A Study of Black College Students

By Thornton, Clarence H. | College Student Journal, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Value Orientations: A Study of Black College Students


Thornton, Clarence H., College Student Journal


The present investigation describes the manner in which a group of southern black college students structure their value preferences. Based upon prior research, especially among white college students, it was expected that our sampled respondents would embrace values associated with economic and materialistic success. However, results obtained suggest that rather than being preeminently concerned with economic pursuits, religion and family emerged as the joint modal category for the vast majority of both male and female students. Implications of the likely import of these findings are discussed in fight of the historical significance of family and religion for Black America.

Introduction and Background

Widespread research interest in the values, activities and general goal orientations of black college students began in earnest during the turbulent 1960s. During those years, campus unrest and black student protest activities were quite normative on many college campuses and black student activists were faced with the sometimes ominous task of reconciling their personal educational and occupational aspirations with their sense of commitment to and/or involvement in collectivist efforts to uplift the entirety of the black community (Yankelovich, 1972:151 ; Gurin and Epps, 1976; Taylor, 1977). This apparent dilemma seemed to have been related, on the one hand, to the black students' relative optimism regarding their own personal chances to succeed economically in America and their relative pessimism regarding the fate and treatment of those not fortunate enough to have made it to college, on the other (Yankelovich, 1972). In spite of this dilemma, such individualist versus collectivist goals were not irreconcilable for most black students. For most, their strong desire to promote the collective mobility of the black community actually served to enhance their individual achievement orientations. In other words, many black students who matriculated during the late 1960s and early 1970s believed that their individual success goals were integral parts of the success of the total black community (Gurin and Epps, 1976).

With the passage of civil rights laws and an improving racial climate in America, much of the impetus for black college protest activities, particularly on black college campuses, began to recede during the following decade. From the late 1970s throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the lives black college students were not that dissimilar to white college students, at least from the standpoint of student activism. Reporting on the results of a thirty year study of college students' values, Astin (1998) found that from the 1970s through the 1990s, American students evidenced an increasing orientation towards materialism and political conservatism and away from liberal social issues and policies. For example, the percentage of students agreeing with the statement that the chief benefit of a college education was to increase one's earning power increased from 54% to 71% between 1969 and 1989. Likewise, the percentage of all college students saying that they attended college to "make more money" increased from 50% to 75% between 1971 and 1991 (Astin, 1998). It should be noted, however, that the movement of college students away from many liberal issues and toward increased conservatism/materialism has not been uniform across all important college going subgroups. Indeed, during the past decade, we have witnessed the co-existence of a political conservatism/materialism along with a rising tide of multi-culturalism, cries for diversity, and the "politics of identity" among non-white college students (Rhoads, 1998; Arthur and Shapiro, 1995).

In some quarters, multi-culturalism has been severely criticized as constituting a threat to national unity Schlesinger (1992) and D'Souza (1991). Yet, empirical assessments of the supposed adverse consequences of multi-culturalism and identity politics have not been found. …

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