Despite promises of financial aid and glossy brochures depicting a diverse student body, many colleges have trouble attracting and maintaining minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A new study suggests that this may be due, partly, to students' misperceptions about college, as well as cultural biases and self-esteem and identity issues.

"Policy Implications of Culturally Based Perceptions in College Choice," which was published in the November 2005 edition of Review of Policy Research, attempts to explain the low number of minorities applying to college and the high failure and dropout rates of students of color once they make it onto campus.

One of the findings of the study was that many disadvantaged high school students who are considering college hold unrealistic expectations and underestimate the challenges involved in applying and attending. The study's author concludes that shifting the focus of admissions away from individual achievements, developing cooperative rather than competitive learning environments, and helping high school students develop a more realistic picture of undergraduate life may lead to greater minority enrollment and attainment of college degrees.

The Study

Jennifer Zimbroff, the study's author (pictured above), is currently a first-year law student at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. But the research for the study was done for her honor's thesis while she was a psychology and political science major at Stanford University. Zimbroff wanted to understand why qualified high school students, especially minority students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, fail to take advantage of the college opportunities that are available to them. Were subtle cultural and emotional issues in play? Using a five-part questionnaire, she asked 85 disadvantaged high school students from East Palo Alto High School to rank their levels of concern and excitement about college admission and attendance.

The "I" versus "Us" Mentality

White, European-American culture focuses on the power of the individual, says Zimbroff. Americans are encouraged to nurture uniqueness and pursue individual dreams. In contrast, according to Stanford psychology Professor Hazel Markus (who was Zimbroff’s adviser at Stanford) and several other researchers, many minority cultures, including African-American, Hispanic, and Native American cultures, place more importance on the collective, teamwork, and the contribution the individual makes to the whole.

This led Zimbroff to question whether college admissions procedures that require students to compete with one another to distinguish themselves from their peers and to detail their individual accomplishments and abilities contradict the fundamental values that many minority cultures hold. Native American children, for example, are taught about the interconnectedness of all beings and the importance of contributing to their communities. To compete and stand out from one’s peer group is considered prideful and is discouraged in some traditions.

"Current college admissions processes seem to demand and reward individualistic presentations, in which students must tout their own superiority, achievement, and innate talents over those of other students, in order to gain admission," Zimbroff writes in the study. "They must convince colleges they are independent, ambitious, and motivated to get ahead in whatever field they choose. High school students with more collectivist orientations may well find such self-promotional presentations offensive, if not downright impossible."

Students were also asked to choose statements that best described their ideal college environment. As she expected, Zimbroff found that the surveyed students preferred environments that emphasized group work and participation over competition, that were populated by many students of similar cultural background, and where teachers, advisers, and older students were available to offer guidance. These factors influence college choice among disadvantaged students.

Unrealistic Expectations

In the study, students with GPAs lower than 2.5 showed extremely little concern about their ability to pass college classes once admitted, their ability to "fit in" with other students, and how they would stack up intellectually with their peers. "My biggest surprise was that some of the students with the lowest self-reported GPAs were the most optimistic about school," Zimbroff says. "It raised a bit of a caution flag."

"Given the past research indicating that disadvantaged students often suffer high rates of failure in college, lack in social preparedness, and experience difficulties fitting into colleges lacking heterogeneity, these results are striking," Zimbroff wrote in the study. "My best explanation is that they have an unrealistic understanding of the whole process," she says. This "strikingly unrealistic view of college demands," she suggests, dooms students to future failure.

Nevertheless, Zimbroff says that students have to take more responsibility and educate themselves. "[High] schools are underresourced and aren’t able to focus individual attention on students," she says. "So it’s a good thing for students to realize that someone won’t be necessarily telling them when, where, and how something needs to happen. They really need to take the initiative, to start early and ask a lot of questions.".

Making College Work for Minorities

Zimbroff says there’s still room for research on the topic and that studying subgroups within the greater disadvantaged population will help to better understand how students view college. In the meantime, the results of her study should help both minority and disadvantaged students interested in pursuing college degrees and the colleges looking to recruit them to better understand some of the stumbling blocks.

Zimbroff suggests that colleges develop cooperative rather than competitive learning environments, emphasize the learning process rather than the outcome, and reduce classroom size to offer more individual attention. These changes could help make colleges more minority-friendly and reduce failure rates.

"Ultimately, I wish there was more research that bridged the gap between cultural psychology and the policy side," says Zimbroff. "I’d love to have both sides working together to address the issues, come up with viable plans, and then implement those plans to get the rates up and help more of these students succeed once they get to college."

Resources:

You can read Zimbroff's study in the Review of Policy Research.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Anne Sasso is a freelance writer and may be reached at amsasso@nasw.org.

Anne Sasso is a freelance writer and may be reached at amsasso at nasw dot org.