Backwards on Racial Understanding

Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, April 10, 2012

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A new study being presented at this year’s annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association suggests that as undergraduates progress in higher education, they become less interested, on average, in promoting racial understanding. The study finds that this is true across racial groups—although it finds some characteristics of the college experience that may make students more interested in racial understanding as they proceed from freshman to senior year.

{snip} They used survey data of students at 6 liberal arts colleges and 11 universities collected by the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education.

Students were asked: “How important to you personally is helping to promote racial understanding?” The researchers write that they selected this as the question because, unlike questions about “openness to diversity” or “other more abstract notions of tolerance,” this question “attempts to capture respondents’ personal commitment to improving racial understanding and may be less prone to social desirability bias.” {snip}

{snip} All four groups were lower at the end of their freshman year, and lower as well by their senior year. Asians showed some rebound between the end of freshman year and senior year, but still ended up at a lower point than where they started.

Importance to College Students of Promoting Racial Understanding, on Scale of 1-4

Group Start of Frosh Year End of Frosh Year Senior Year
White 2.47 2.32 2.31
Black 3.26 3.18 2.95
Latino 3.13 2.93 2.82
Asian 2.88 2.63 2.74

The researchers write that “contrary to our expectations, the average change in racial attitudes during the first year and over the entire four-year period is in a negative direction.” In between the start and end of freshman year, 30.5 percent said that promoting racial understanding was less important at the end, while only 17.3 percent thought it was more important. (The rest didn’t change.) Between the start and end of college, more students “trend negative” (33.8 percent) than positive (21.4 percent), the study finds.

The paper’s authors say these data challenge the conventional wisdom about college and race: the findings suggest that for most students, being in college has no impact on a desire to promote racial understanding, and that those who change do so in the direction of being less committed to intergroup understanding.

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“These findings cast doubt on research and conventional wisdom that argues for the liberalizing effects of higher education on racial attitudes. Instead, it suggests that, for some students, negative experiences with diversity may dampen the relatively progressive racial views they hold when entering college,” write the authors in their conclusion.

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