Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Campus Racial Climate and the Adjustment of Students to College: A Comparison between White Students and African-American Students

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Campus Racial Climate and the Adjustment of Students to College: A Comparison between White Students and African-American Students

Article excerpt

Benefits associated with a college degree are multiple. From a societal standpoint, a college graduate is far less likely to commit a crime and approximately 30% less likely to be unemployed compared to a student who has simply earned a high-school diploma (Hossler, Braxton, & Coopersmith, 1989; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). From an individual perspective, each additional year of schooling past high school seems to prolong life by 0.4%, or nearly 2 percentage points, upon graduation from college (Hossler, Braxton, & Coopersmith, 1989). Moreover, earning a college degree is known to produce greater gains in occupational prestige (e.g., Lin & Vogt, 1996) and economic returns (e.g., Leslie & Brinkman, 1986) as compared to simply attaining a high-school diploma.

A precondition for the attainment of these benefits is persistence to graduation. Although persistence rates have remained remarkably stable at roughly 45% as far back as 1885 (Tinto, 1982; Porter, 1990), there are notable variations when the ethnicity of the student is introduced. Compared to White students, African Americans are 20% less likely to complete college within a six-year period (Porter, 1990). For every two White students who drop out in that time frame, three African Americans have departed from a postsecondary institution (Porter, 1990).

Several hypotheses have been advanced that may account for enrollment and persistence trends of minority students. Hauser and Anderson (1991) explored the extent to which declines in college participation rates could be attributed to changes in college aspirations and changes in high-school completion rates among African Americans. Tinto (1987) argued that overall differences in persistence rates between African Americans and non-minorities were primarily due to differences in their academic preparedness rather than differences in their socioeconomic backgrounds. Tinto contended that differences in ability arise from prior educational experiences at elementary and secondary school levels that tend to favor the educational achievement and persistence of nonminorities relative to minorities. Other researchers speculate these trends could be attributed to changes in the composition of federal financial aid packets and patterns of financing higher education exhibited by minority students (Mortenson & Wu, 1990; Olivas, 1985 Porter, 1990; St. John, 1994).

Exposure to a climate of prejudice and discrimination in the classroom and on campus has gained attention as the main factor accounting for differences in withdrawal behavior between minorities and non-minorities (e.g., Fleming, 1984; Hurtado, 1992, 1994; Hurtado, Carter, & Spuler, 1996; Smedley, Myers, & Harrel, 1993). The role of perceived discriminatory behavior on the maladaptive behavior of minority students to college has been scrutinized through two conceptualizations. The first approach relies on Student-Institution Fit models (Bean, 1990; Spady, 1970; Tinto, 1993) and views prejudice and discrimination as a factor interfering with a student's integration into his or her social and academic environments. A second, more recent approach uses transactional models of stress and coping behaviors as their theoretical premises (Munoz, 1987; Smedley, Myers, & Harrell, 1993).

The transactional model (Munoz, 1987; Smedley, Myers, & Harrell, 1993) regards experiences of racism and discrimination on campus as psychological and sociocultural stressors. Like other stressors, experiences of prejudice and discrimination are associated with psychological distress that can lead to the maladjustment of students at their respective institutions. Unlike other stressors, however, experiences of discrimination are considered unique in that they (a) are present only among minority students and (b) heighten the feeling of not belonging at the institution with spillover effect on a student's academic performance.

Proponents of the Student-Institution Fit perspective argue that intolerance toward the minority student plays a key role for explaining his or her maladjustment with the institution. …

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