Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

"A Fly in the Buttermilk": Descriptions of University Life by Successful Black Undergraduate Students at a Predominately White Southeastern University

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

"A Fly in the Buttermilk": Descriptions of University Life by Successful Black Undergraduate Students at a Predominately White Southeastern University

Article excerpt

  "And so a lot of times I felt out of place, because you see all white
  faces. You know I'm the only fly in the buttermilk, so that took
  some getting used to ..."

These words, shared by a black student during an interview for the present study, poignantly reflect the essence of the experience of being a minority student on a predominately white university campus. The impetus for this study of that experience was our realization that the graduation rate for black students was lower than the total rate for the university (four-year graduation rates are 19.6% versus 16.8%; five year rates are 36.1% versus 50.7). Available data provided no ready explanation for this discrepancy, although preliminary information from a research project concerning graduates of the university's nursing program indicated painful and alienating experiences among black students (Thomas & Davis, 2000). These early results led to a decision to enlarge the research team and to broaden the study to include students in other undergraduate majors. The purpose of this study was to obtain the first-person perspective of the students themselves, a perspective missing from most of the literature about the academic experience of black students.

Review of Literature

Minority groups in the United States currently constitute 25% of the overall population, and it is projected that before the year 2015 one-third of the population will consist of individuals culturally and ethnically different from the white majority (American Council on Education, 1988; U.S. Census Bureau, 1993). This national pattern of cultural change is also reflected on college campuses where increasing numbers of minority students are enrolling and, far too often, dropping out. Predominantly white institutions of higher education, in fact, often devote intensive efforts to minority student recruitment but find that subsequent retention is a significant problem. In predominantly white institutions, 70% of black students do not complete baccalaureate education compared to 20% of those from historically black institutions (National Center for Education Statistics, 1992; Steele, 1992). Throughout the 1990s the national college dropout rate for blacks was 20-25% higher than that for whites (Steele, 1999). This discrepancy is often explained by inferior academic preparation of black students prior to college entry. Extant data, however, strongly suggest that academic concerns are not paramount in the high attrition of black students (Echols, 1998) and certainly not the sole reason for their premature departure from campus (Steele, 1999). Given this possibility, attention must be given to nonacademic factors that influence attrition.

In a meta-analysis of 113 studies covering research on minority students from 1970 to 1997, a number of social, academic, family, and institutional factors were found to be linked to academic success (Echols, 1998). Over 1500 institutions and 46,000 minority students (Hispanic Americans and Native Americans as well as black students) were represented in Echols' analysis. Supporting a theory proposed by Tinto (1975, 1987)--regarding the importance of social integration in promoting graduation--this analysis revealed that integrative experiences were a highly significant predictor variable. Negative or nonintegrative experiences (loneliness, alienation, and so forth) were positively correlated with voluntary withdrawal from college whereas positive or integrative experiences enhanced minority student persistence. Fostering educational attainment were factors such as an ability to be bicultural yet also maintain a cultural identity and to avoid becoming disheartened by racist events.

Several authors suggest that the predominately white university campus does not present a hospitable atmosphere for minority student learning. If educational offerings are Euro-centric, culturally different students may feel unappreciated or come to devalue their own cultural group (Sue, Bingham, Porche-Burke, & Vasquez, 1999). …

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