Overcoming Biases to Effectively Serve African American College Students: A Call to the Profession

By Duncan, Lonnie E. | College Student Journal, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Overcoming Biases to Effectively Serve African American College Students: A Call to the Profession


Duncan, Lonnie E., College Student Journal


This article reexamines the help-seeking behavior of African American college students with a focus on possible counselor biases as well as biases in the settings in which counselors work. These issues are discussed as possible contributing factors to the underutilization of counseling by African American college students. Strategies to overcoming these biases are discussed as well as implications for the counseling profession.

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Over the past three decades there has been a great deal of attention devoted to multicultural counseling issues and how to deliver services to racial/ethnic minorities. Counselors have been informed of ways to adapt services to better meet the needs of African American students for over 20 years (Griffith, 1978), yet how much adaptation of services has actually occurred? To what degree are counselors' comfortable in working with African American students and adapting their own practices to ensure client retention? Data demonstrating that African American students still underutilize counseling services and have less positive experiences in counseling than their peers of other races, despite increases in psycho educational programming geared toward African American college students, suggests that it is time for counselors to put into action the recommendations across several decades, including the recently adopted statements regarding multicultural competency by the ACA and APA (Hargrove & Sedlacek, 1997).

Cardemil and Battle (2003) write:

"It is likely that most clinical psychologists have acquired an intellectual appreciation of the salience of race and ethnicity in the therapeutic context and are motivated to be sensitive to these issues in their own practice. However, for many psychologists, a general appreciation regarding the importance of race and ethnicity does not equate to a clear understanding of whether, when, and how to bring up these issues in the actual practice of clinical work." (p. 278). Hence, the purpose of this article is to re-examine the help seeking behavior of African American college students, highlight professional barriers to working with African American college students and provide strategies to overcome biases when working with African American college students.

Despite the gains and hard fought battles to improve the environment for African American college students on predominantly white campuses, there is a substantial body of research indicating that African American college students in general are still having a difficult time adjusting to the sometimes hostile environment on predominantly White campuses (Allen, 1991; Fleming, 1984; Schwitzer, Ancis, Griffin, 1998; Willie, 2003). African American college students enrolled at these colleges and universities have higher attrition rates, lower graduation rates and grade point averages, and attend graduate school at a much lower rate than their White counterparts (Allen, 1991; Duncan, 2003; Fleming, 1984; U.S. Department of Education, 2003; Schwitzer, Ancis, Griffin, &Thomas, 1999). Notwithstanding statistics that indicate, on average, African American college students are not doing well; research suggests that African American college students with higher levels of psychological functioning and a positive sense of mental wellness are far more likely to experience greater levels of success and performance, irrespective of the environment in which they are operating (Gloria, Hird, & Navarro, 2001).

African American college student help seeking behavior

Research that has focused on the relationship between race and help seeking has found that White students utilize counseling and other forms of psychological services more often than African American college students (Bosch & Cimbolic, 1994). Barbarin (1996) identified three main areas of research that were relevant to the underutilization of psychotherapy by African Americans. …

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