Belonging Matters: How Researchers Can Halve the Race Gap in GPA

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The racial gap in achievement between African American and white college students has been stubbornly persistent, but an hour-long intervention conducted during students’ freshman year can halve the GPA lag by graduation time while simultaneously improving health, according to a new study published in Science.

The research has implications for all students facing social transitions — whether from high school to college, middle school to high school or even just moving to a new home.

An exercise designed to change how students understand social events that occur in school had an effect that really transformed the college experience for minority students,” says study co-author Gregory Walton, assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University. (More on TIME.com: Who’s White? Who’s Black? Who Knows?)

So how can an hour-long experience make such a big difference? Walton and his colleagues recognized that all college freshmen face problems transitioning from high school life to the new world of a university campus — but the way they interpret these challenges can have a profound influence on their ability to surmount them.

What the intervention did was to change how students understand negative events that happen to them in school,” he says. If students view the ordinary difficulties that come with being in a new social setting as problems unique to them — or, worse, see them as signs that people of their race or ethnic group don’t belong in college at all — they will be less likely to get over those challenges. Alternatively, if students see college struggles as universal and transient, they should be able handle them better.

The study followed 92 freshmen at an elite university — 49 of whom were black — starting in their second semester and continuing until graduation. Half of the black students and half of the white students received the intervention; the rest participated as controls. The active treatment involved reading a report on a survey (the results were actually created by the researchers), which purported to be about how seniors experienced their freshmen year. According to the survey, most seniors had worried about whether they belonged at the school at first, but these fears eased over time. (More on TIME.com: Seeking the Authentic Self: Are You Really Racist?)

The report noted that the experience of feeling left out was the same for all ethnic groups and for both men and women. It included quotes like, “Freshman year, even though I met large numbers of people, I didn’t have a small group of close friends. … I was pretty homesick and I had to remind myself that making close friends takes time. Since then…I have met people, some of whom are now just as close as my friends in high school were.”

Participants were then asked to write an essay describing how the experiences the seniors had of overcoming their problems were similar to their own experiences conquering social challenges they’d faced first semester. The students also videotaped messages about this to give support to new freshmen who would face these problems the following year.

We said, ‘Here are some initial findings. We would like some thoughts about why you think they’re true and why your experience exemplifies this,’” says Walton. “We wanted to give them a broad narrative and wanted them to reframe their own personal experience through the lens of this narrative. If you do it more overtly, it can seem controlling and people can end up not hearing the idea.”

In the group that did not receive the intervention, the students did the same tasks — essay writing and videotaped interviews — but the content was related to the physical environment of college, not social life. (More on TIME.com: ‘Love’ Hormone Oxytocin Is Choosy, Not Necessarily Racist)

“This is a powerful demonstration of the idea that if you can increase minority students’ sense of belonging, it doesn’t just have an effect on things like whether they like their roommates or not. It actually has a long term impact on academic performance and health outcomes,” says Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University.

For black participants, the intervention tripled the number who graduated in the top 25% of the class. As with the GPA difference, doctor visits reported by students were cut in half in the black intervention group. Research has found that being lonely and feeling excluded are as bad for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic.

The new study found that this exercise had no effect on white students, even though African Americans are certainly not alone in facing challenges fitting in at college. “I think there’s something special about the belonging issue for these minority students,” says Walton, suggesting that stereotypes about poor academic performance may make black students especially sensitive to cues of exclusion in a college setting, for example.

“I’m an African American professor, I used to be a college student. I went to Columbia. This is a study about me,” says Purdie-Vaughns. “What ran through my head was that I wondered whether other people had some kind of preparation that I didn’t have. I was worried that they had some kind of friendship network that I didn’t have and that people were sharing connections, friends, vacation plans and internships that [weren't available to me.]“

Purdie-Vaughns believes that similar interventions, appropriately targeted, could benefit students of all types. Many freshmen get into trouble in college — especially with alcohol and other drugs — when they feel left out. “It’s curious [that it didn't work for whites],” she says. “I think partly there might be some nuance in the study material or targeting that implicitly led the African Americans to feel like this was something they could really resonate with.”

Indeed, the researchers are working on studies aimed at female engineers and African American boys transitioning into middle school and high school — so far finding a reduction in disciplinary problems for the boys who did a similar exercise.

Purdie-Vaughns notes, however, that these interventions can’t take the place of actual reductions in racism and exclusion — and they can’t help students who are not academically prepared to succeed. “We don’t want to give the impression that ‘it’s all in your head,’” she says. People’s personal experiences of racism or other forms of prejudice at college and their prior education would certainly affect whether these results can be replicated on a larger scale.

Further, both Walton and Purdie-Vaughns stress that this approach can work only if people don’t feel they are being explicitly targeted. “I would be willing to bet that if you made it explicit and had all the students go into the auditorium to hear the same message, it would have no effect,” she says. “It’s the power of not just what the message is but how it comes into the experience of students.”

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