URC

Interracial Interaction of College Students from High School to College
and their Perceptions of Campus

Paul Smith
Alicia M. Helion*
Alan K. Mock*

Lakeland College, Sheyboygan, Wisconsin


Abstract

This research explored the relationship between interracial interactions of students from high school to college. College students’ perception of their campus was also measured. The benefits of interracial interaction for college students are discussed.

Introduction

Ethnic and racial diversity have been and will continue to increase throughout the United States, its workplace, and its academic environments. The academic realms, specifically colleges and universities, can provide a diverse environment and educational benefits to every individual and thus for society. Studies have found that students who had more interracial interaction during college were more likely to have positive ethnic attitudes at the end of college (Levin, Van Laar, & Sidanius, 2003). It is important to understand how much interracial interaction is occurring on campus and how students perceive the campus environment and its efforts to promote cultural diversity. A primary purpose of this exploratory study was to evaluate these issues for black and white students in the college environment, specifically in the small liberal arts school environment.

Experiencing and/or witnessing discrimination can create a stressful learning environment for students who perceive that racism exists in the college environment. For example, greater experiences with racism and discrimination were associated with poorer psychological functions and retention of black students (Bynum, Burton, & Best 2007).

Unfortunately, minority students appear to experience racial discrimination on campus. For example, one study found that black, Hispanic, and Asian students perceived racial discrimination in higher percentages than did white students (Biasco, Goodwin, & Vitale, 2004). Similarly, Ancis, Sedlacek, and Mohr (2000) found that black students consistently reported more negative experiences compared to white students. Specifically, black students experienced greater racial/ethnic hostility, greater pressure to conform to stereotypes, less equitable treatment by faculty (and staff and teaching assistants), and more faculty racism than white students. They found that white students not only experienced very little discrimination but they also seemed to have no recognition that interracial tensions and conflict existed for a significant portion of the student body. This suggests that the white students were not aware of acts of discrimination perceived by the black students. The researchers argued that white students’ lack of awareness or denial regarding racial intolerance might result in their tendency to doubt reports of discrimination by minority students. The researchers contended these misunderstandings and misperceptions could actually increase interracial conflict and create uneasiness and avoidance of interracial interactions (Ancis, Sedlacek, & Mohr, 2000).

Students’ uneasiness during interracial interaction as well as a complete avoidance of the interaction can be related to having negative expectations towards interracial interactions. Plant, Butz, and Tartakovsky (2008) found that students who had negative expectations about interracial interactions reported more anger and anxiety about interracial interactions. The researchers suggested that these negative responses of anger and anxiety could lead to the avoidance of interracial interactions by all students (Plant, Butz, & Tartakovsky, 2008). Likewise, Plant and Devine (2003) found that having limited positive experiences and interaction with members of different racial groups could result in intergroup anxiety and negative expectations about interracial interactions. The researchers contended that many people, especially whites, have less experience interacting with people from other racial groups than their own racial group. They suggested that a lack of experience with interracial interaction leads to people misrepresenting themselves during interracial interactions. They argued that a lack of experience of interracial interaction could lead to negative experiences and cause anxiety during interracial interaction which could ultimately lead to avoiding interracial interaction altogether (Plant, & Devine, 2003).

Research clearly supported the notion that students perceive discrimination occurring on many campuses and those perceptions differ between white students and black students. Small, rural colleges provide an intimate environment for interaction between members of groups from different backgrounds. Although researchers argued that these conditions might promote understanding, as Schlossberg, Lynch, and Chickering (1989) suggested, these conditions might also foster the growth of prejudicial attitudes, which could lead to acts of discrimination and avoidance of interracial interaction. Therefore this study sought to explore the interracial interaction of students from high school to college and their perceptions of campus.

Method

A survey was designed and distributed to investigate possible perceptions of discrimination by students and whether the student’s interaction had an effect on those possible perceptions. The survey consisted of close-ended objective questions with the opportunity for several self-report open-ended questions at the end. IRB approval was obtained. The survey was distributed electronically by Survey Monkey (Finley, Surveymonkey.com), an anonymous online survey and data-compiling system, and was available for response from the beginning of February through the end of April, in the spring semester of 2008. Professors were asked for their assistance in distributing the survey link to their classes via e-mail to their students or by posting the link on the college’s academic site maintained for the students. Professors were not required to distribute the survey link and were not asked to notify us whether they assisted in distributing the link. A number of black students were asked to assist in the data collection process by emailing their fraternity/sorority and the black student union. The online survey allowed the participants to complete the survey on their own time and wherever they pleased. Any student could participate, but only white and black student’s responses were analyzed.1

Measurements

The survey began with participants indicating their gender, race, and year in school, via open-ended responses. These items were required; students could not move forward in the survey without answering these questions. The survey consisted of six sections: Characteristics, Interaction, Discrimination Items, Impulses and Admiration, Favorability of Characteristics, and Personal Response.

Interaction

The participants were asked how often they interacted with blacks and whites both in high school and currently at Lakeland College. A six-point scale was used from which participants could select an answer. The options were: almost never, monthly, weekly, several times a week, daily, or many times a day. The participants were then asked where their current interaction was taking place at Lakeland College. They chose between the options of interaction taking place in sports, clubs, activities, or one’s living environment. The participants could select multiple places if they chose.

Discrimination Items

Participants responded to twelve statements (Table 2) regarding discrimination existing on campus. The participants chose a level of agreement or disagreement from a six-point scale ranging from strongly disagree, disagree, slightly disagree, slightly agree, agree, to strongly agree.

Table 2. Discrimination Items

1. Racial discrimination is practiced in athletics between teammates at Lakeland.

2. Minority students encounter racial discrimination from non-minority students at Lakeland.

3. Students racially discriminate when choosing friends at Lakeland.

4. Greater efforts should be made by Lakeland College to promote cultural diversity on campus.

5. Some fraternities and sororities racially discriminate at Lakeland.

6. Lakeland College adequately promotes culturally diverse instruction and activities.

7. There is racial tension between students at Lakeland.

8. There is racial tension between students and faculty at Lakeland.

9. Groups at Lakeland promote their own discrimination by segregating themselves.

10. In some organizations at Lakeland, students racially discriminate when selecting officers.

11. Lakeland College employs an insufficient number of minority faculty, staff, and administrators.

12. Students are racially discriminated against by professors at Lakeland.

Results

Two hundred and nine participants began taking the survey. Of these, one hundred eighty four completed the survey .2 The total number of white and black respondents who completed the survey was 162. Table 1 provides a demographic profile of the participants who fully completed the survey, those who partially completed the survey, and the total population of students who did not respond to the survey at Lakeland College in the spring semester of 2008. Chi-square analyses indicate that the race, gender, and year in school of those who completed a majority of the survey did not differ from those who only partially completed the survey [ C 2 (2, N = 209) = 2.15, p = .34; C 2 (1, N = 208) = 1.91, p = .17; C 2 (3, N = 209) = 3.25, p = .36], respectively. Participants whose race was not white or black were removed from further analyses of the sample. Chi-square analyses were also conducted to ensure that the sample of 162 respondents did not significantly differ from the population of enrolled students at Lakeland College. There was no significant difference for race or year in school [ C 2 (1, N = 684) = 2.81, p = .09; C 2 (3, N = 684) = .22, p = .97]. However, more women completed the survey than men [ C 2 (1, N = 684) = 11.07, p = .001]. 3

Table 1. Comparison of Responders, Partial responders, and Population numbers

 

Respondents

 

Partial respondents

 

Population

 

(n = 162)

 

(n = 25)

 

(n = 684)

 
 

No.

%

No.

%

No.

%

RACE

           

White

136

73.9

20

80

607

88.7

Black

26

14.1

5

4

77

11.3

             

GENDER

           

Male

55

33.9

12

48

333

48.7

Female

106

65.4

13

52

351

51.3

             

YEAR in SCHOOL

           

Freshman

47

29

5

20

187

27.3

Sophomore

36

22.2

3

12

160

23.4

Junior

33

20.4

7

28

142

20.8

Senior

46

28.4

10

40

195

28.5

Notes. Values for Gender of sample do not equal 162 due to one missing data point.

Interaction

A two-way Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) was performed with the race of participant as a factor and the race of the person they interact with at Lakeland College as the second factor. There was a significant main effect of race with blacks interacting more with blacks than whites interacting with blacks (5.81, SD = .40, vs. 4.48, SD = 1.53, respectively). A six-point scale was used for the participants to select an answer from in the survey. The options were: almost never, monthly, weekly, several times a week, daily, or many times a day. Black respondents were removed from the analyses to examine the possible relationships between the interaction items for white participants. Correlations revealed a relationship between white’s interaction with blacks in high school and their interaction in college with blacks such that the level of interaction in high school (M = 2.40, SD = 1.76, N = 134) was positively correlated with the level of interracial interaction students had in college (M = 4.48, SD = 1.53), r(134), p = .001. No other significant correlations were found.

Lastly, independent samples t-tests were used to evaluate the twelve discrimination items. A stringent alpha value of p ≤ .001 was used. One item were found to be statistically significant, Greater efforts should be made by Lakeland College to promote cultural diversity on campus, t(148)= - 5.93, p = .000, respectively. Table 6 illustrates the evaluation of the twelve discrimination items.

Table 6. Twelve Discrimination Items

 

Black

White

t-value

p -value

 

M(SD)

M(SD)

   

Racial discrimination is practiced in athletics between teammates at Lakeland.

2.58(1.50)

2.38(1.26)

-0.778

0.438

Minority students encounter racial discrimination from non-minority students at Lakeland.

3.54(1.61)

2.99(1.32)

-1.852

0.066

Students racially discriminate when choosing friends at Lakeland.

3.62(1.75)

2.92(1.43)

-2.163

0.032

Greater efforts should be made by Lakeland College to promote cultural diversity on campus.

5.12(.78)

3.48(1.34)

-5.930

0.000*

Some fraternities and sororities racially discriminate at Lakeland.

3.50(1.98)

4.17(1.41)

2.036

0.044

Lakeland College adequately promotes culturally diverse instruction and activities.

3.92(1.38)

4.40(1.17)

1.830

0.069

There is racial tension between students at Lakeland.

2.96(1.57)

3.08(1.32)

0.401

0.689

There is racial tension between students and faculty at Lakeland.

2.19(1.13)

2.33(1.04)

0.619

0.537

Groups at Lakeland promote their own discrimination by segregating themselves.

3.81(1.65)

4.18(1.18)

1.346

0.180

In some organizations at Lakeland, students racially discriminate when selecting officers.

2.77(1.45)

3.09(1.22)

1.177

0.241

Lakeland College employs an insufficient number of minority faculty, staff, and administrators.

3.69(1.91)

3.14(1.36)

-1.738

0.084

Students are racially discriminated against by professors at Lakeland.

2.12(1.07)

1.98(.99)

-0.641

0.522

Notes. * = statistically significant at the .001 level.
Discussion

This study sought to explore the interracial interaction of students from high school to college and their perceptions on campus. Fortunately, this study did not find that students reported discrimination on campus. Both black and white students disagreed with the statements regarding discrimination on campus. Furthermore, there was no difference between black students and white students in their reports of discrimination. However, black students more strongly endorsed the discrimination item Greater efforts should be made by Lakeland College to promote cultural diversity on campus ; both black and white students strongly endorsed this statement. The lack of reported discrimination is reassuring because it can have distressing effects on students such as experiences with racism and discrimination being associated with poorer psychological functions and retention of black students (Bynum, Burton, & Best, 2007) as well their overall commitment to the university (Cabrera, Nora, Terenzini, Pascarella, & Hagedorn, 1999).

Colleges and universities are expected to promote and uphold the highest values of society, values of celebrating diversity, culture, and respect. A campus environment should be one of unity and appreciation, not shadowed by discrimination and avoidance of interracial interaction among different groups. For example, the college compact of the college where this study took place, states, “The school is a just community where the sacredness of each person is honored and where diversity is pursued.” The compact continues on to state that, “Higher learning at this college builds community out of the rich resources of its members. It rejects prejudicial judgments, celebrates diversity and seeks to serve the full range of citizens in our society effectively; and that life in this community will be both equitable and fair (Lakeland College 2008).” The results from this study illustrate that this college appears to be committed to the values represented in its compact.

A second major finding of the study was the correlation between students’ interaction in high school and interaction in college. More interaction with blacks in high school was associated with more interaction with them in college. Although this shows that interracial interaction may be increasing, it may not be increasing to the level the college compact illustrates, given the college’s high minority enrollment. The majority of students come from predominately white high schools. Given the high percentage of black students (11.3% of overall campus student population), the campus provides a great deal of opportunity for students to interact with members of different racial groups. Tlthough this is only correlational data, this may suggest that the college is not having the influence of promoting interracial interaction that it could.

Prior to the present work, few studies examined the relationship between interaction in high school and its relationship to interaction in college. Yet, there is an overwhelming amount of research stressing the positive benefits of interracial interaction among students on college campuses. Chang (2006) found that the average level of interracial interaction between students positively affects students’ self-comparison of gains made since entering college, particularly in their knowledge of and ability to accept different races and cultures (Chang, Denson, Saenz, & Misa, 2006). Similarly, Whitt (2001) found that across students’ first three years of college their interaction with diverse peers, including conversations about the differences between ethnic groups that challenged previously held beliefs and ideas, were associated with significant gains in openness to diversity (Whitt, Edison, Pascarella, Terenzini, & Nora, 2001).

Likewise, studies found that students who had more interracial interaction during college were more likely to have positive ethnic attitudes at the end of college. Researchers found that, when students perceived a lack of institutional support for diversity and perceived discrimination and conflict on campus, they were more likely to avoid interracial interaction. The researchers asserted these results point to a need for further actions taken by universities to encourage cross-ethnic friendships, show a clear support for diversity, encourage a common in-group identity, and manage conflict and discrimination on campus. These actions would have positive effects on interracial interaction and the positive development of students’ ethnic attitudes throughout and well after their college years (Levin, Van Laar, & Sidanius, 2003).

Diversity should enhance the knowledge and experience of every college student that has the opportunity to attend a diverse school. Umbach and Kuh (2003) researched students’ experiences with diversity in a small liberal arts college environment and discovered a positive relationship between diversity and students’ desirable outcomes of college. They found that students who engaged in diversity-related activities more frequently reported higher levels of academic challenge, greater opportunities for active and collaborative learning, and a more supportive campus environment. They were also more satisfied with their college experience and reported greater gains since starting college in a variety of areas. Umbach and Kuh (2003) maintained that the majority of small liberal art schools should offer in-depth diversity courses, cultural differences courses, and cultural workshops for students during orientation and throughout the entire school year that enable each student the opportunity to experience the richness and diversity their college has to offer (Umbach, & Kuh, 2003). Whitt (2001) found that independent of whether a student had previous experience with a diversity workshop and independent of a student’s pre-college openness to diversity, participation in a diversity workshop at any point in a student’s college career had a positive impact on the student’s openness to diversity (Whitt, Edison, Pascarella, Terenzini, & Nora, 2001). So perhaps, for schools such as the one in the present study, providing diversity workshops may be the necessary step to allow students to maximally benefit from the diversity that exists on campus. Future studies should examine whether workshops are the necessary link for students to experience the positive effects of diversity.

Umbach and Kuh (2003) asserted that colleges and universities need to find ways to communicate the value of diversity and support the academic and social needs of students from different backgrounds. They maintained that in the context of small liberal arts schools, the amount of students from different backgrounds does not matter as much as drawing from the diversity experiences and interactions of the students that the campus environment encourages and nurtures (Umbach, & Kuh, 2003). Evaluating different methods of incorporating diversity experiences and interactions into the day-to-day lives of the students may be a valuable area for future research.

Limitations

Several limitations of this study exist. Convenience sampling was used because participants were not directly recruited by the researchers; instead they were recruited by professors and/or peers. The researchers could not control who at the college was offered the opportunity to take the survey. Students could be exposed to the survey link from their professors or their peers. How the students were exposed to the link could not be measured given that participants were to feel as anonymous as possible to increase the likelihood that they would be honest with their responses. In addition, many participants were likely informed about the study through multiple sources given the small size of the campus. Additionally, it is likely that every student in the entire student population was not aware of or given the survey link.

Another limitation is that the participants knew who the researchers were due to the information and instructions provided with the survey. The main researchers were white as were the professors who suggested the study to participants. However, there were a number of black students who assisted in the survey link distribution process by emailing their fraternity/sorority and the black student union, which hopefully aided in overcoming any problems associated with having only white researchers and professors associated with the survey. Although students were not aware of the purpose of the study, it was likely that from the content of the survey, they had some ideas regarding the purpose; therefore, socially desirable responses may have been elicited because participants did not want to appear prejudiced toward any group.4

Conclusion

This study sought to explore the interracial interaction of students from high school to college and student perceptions of campus. This study did not find that students reported discrimination on campus, which may reflect this college’s commitment to the values represented in its compact. The second major finding of the study was a correlation between students’ interaction in high school and interaction in college. More interaction with blacks in high school was associated with more interaction with them in college. Although this shows that while interracial interaction may be increasing, it may not be increasing to the level the college aspires to in its environments, particularly given the college’s high minority enrollment. This may suggest that the college is not having the influence of promoting interracial interaction that it could be having.

Few studies have examined the relationship between interaction in high school and its relationship to interaction in college; therefore this study provides a valuable first step in the study of interracial interaction in a college setting. Future studies examining this relationship may provide colleges and universities with diverse student bodies the opportunity to prepare their institutional and educational programs for the immediate and long-term benefits of interracial interaction.

References

Ancis, J., Mohr, J., and Sedlacek, W. (2000). Student Perceptions of Campus Cultural Climate by Race. Journal of Counseling and Development, 78, 180-185.

Biasco, F., Goodwin, E.A., and Vitale, K.L. (2001). College Students’ Attitudes towards Racial Discrimination. College Student Journal, Vol. 35, Issue 4.

Bynum, E., Burton, T., and Best, C. (2007). Racism Experiences and Psychological Functioning in African American College Freshman: Is Racial Socialization a Buffer?. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 13 (1), 64-71.

Cabrera, A.F., Nora, A., Terenzini, P.T., Pascarella, E., and Hagedorn, L.S. (1999). Campus Racial Climate and the Adjustment of Students to College: A Comparison Between White Students and African-American Students. The Journal of Higher Education, 70 (2), 134-160.

Chang, M.J., Denson, N., Saenz, V., and Misa, K. (2006). The Educational Benefits of Sustaining Cross-Racial Interaction among Undergraduates. The Journal of Higher Education, 77 (3), 430-455.

Finley, R. Surveymonkey.com. Surveymonkey.com Corporation, Portland, OR. Retrieved March 12, 2007, from http://www.surveymonkey.com.

Lakeland College. (2008). Lakeland College Campus Compact. Lakeland College Student Handbook and Academic Calendar, 3-4.

Levin, S., Van Laar, C., and Sidanius, J. (2003). The Effects of Ingroup and Outgroup Friendships on Ethnic Attitudes in College: A Longitudinal Study. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 6 (1), 76-92.

Plant, E.A., Butz, D.A., and Tartakovsky, M. (2008). Interethnic Interactions: Expectancies, Emotions, and Behavioral Intentions. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 11 (4), 555-574.

Plant, E.A., Devine, P.G. (2003). The Antecedents and Implications of Interracial Anxiety. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 709-801.

Schlossberg, N.K., Lynch, A. Q., and Chickering, A.W. (1989). Improving higher education environments for adults: Responsive programs and services from entry to departure. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Umbach, P. D., Kuh, G. D. (2003). Student Experiences with Diversity at Liberal Arts Colleges: Another Claim for Distinctiveness. Journal of Higher Education, 77 (1), 169-192.

Whitt, E.J., Edison, M.I., Pascarella, E.T., Terenzini, P.T., and Nora, A. (2001). Influences on Students’ Openness to Diversity and Challenge in the Second and Third Years of College. The Journal of Higher Education, 72 (2), 172-204.

Footnotes

1 During the categorization of respondents, ‘black’ and ‘African American (AA)’ responses were recorded as being of the same race.

2 In order for all participants to be included in further analyses they needed to complete at least the first section after the demographics portion of the survey.

3 The additional measures of the survey used are not reported.

4 While the results are not reported here, participants were willing to endorse some stereotypes, suggesting the problems of socially desirable responses were minimal.


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