Diversity on College Campuses, Black Students, White Campuses: The Ticket to Downward Mobility?

by: Gwendolyn Miller

The US higher education system boasts a progressive approach to diversity on its college and university campuses. This all-inclusive platform has the numbers of students of color attending predominantly White schools on the rise. Universities have “made tremendous strides to correct past transgressions,” according to Kevin McClain, PhD.

For many parents, this presents an opportunity for their child’s first step toward a life of endless accomplishments, a ticket to upward mobility.

Even “well-resourced institutions can fall short at nurturing minority students emotionally and intellectually,”

– Journalist Judith Ohikuare

Diversity On College Campuses

The freshman year in any college or university is a significant milestone. Students adjust to life on campus, explore their independence, form new relationships, and learn to manage rigorous academic curriculums. Campus life for some, specifically students of color, can be overwhelming, causing them to seek emotional support and coping strategies.

Diversity on College Campuses

A survey performed by Joe R. Feagin and Melvin P. Sikes revealed that Black university students reported “being alienated and miserable, yet because an Ivy League degree would give them a boost in the outside world, they were resigned to the indignities of that milieu.”

Regents, administrators, faculty members, staff, and students who are White “have shown little willingness to incorporate Black values, interests, or history into the core of campus culture,” Fegin and Sikes reported from their findings.

Race-related stress refers to the psychological distress associated with experiences of racism. This type of stress can be experienced even if one thinks that a racist act has occurred.

Even “well-resourced institutions can fall short at nurturing minority students emotionally and intellectually,” journalist Judith Ohikuare argues. Their experiences therefore involve culture shock, disillusionment, and covert microaggressions. 

Covert Microaggressions

Upset african american male sitting alone on college bench stress after conflict

A report by Brown University Counseling and Psychological Services states that despite appearing diverse on the surface, “many institutions exhibit covert microaggressions and controlling images that provoke attrition among students of color at predominantly White institutions.” For the minority student, this could lead to race-related stress.

Race-related stress refers to the psychological distress associated with experiences of racism. This type of stress can be experienced even if one thinks that a racist act has occurred.

Findings from a cross-section of research performed by Chalmer E. Thompson, University of Southern California, and Bruce R. Fretz, University of Maryland, suggest that Black students who attend predominately White colleges and universities “perceive greater racial tension and hostility in their environment, express lower levels of satisfaction and greater levels of isolation, and feel less identified with the institution” than do White students. It was also found that Black students who graduated from predominately White institutions “derived lower levels of intellectual and psychosocial development than their counterparts” having graduated from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Coping with Race-related Stress

Coping strategies to combat the negative effects of race-related stress have been studied by many researchers and theorists. The most widely adopted in the conceptualization of racial discrimination is psychologists Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman’s transactional model of stress, appraisal, and coping.

Coping, according to Lazarus, refers to “cognitive and behavioral efforts to master, reduce, or tolerate the internal and/or external demands that are created by the stressful transaction.”

Lazarus and Folkman define psychological stress as a “particular relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her well-being.” There are two phases in this relationship: cognitive appraisals and coping.

Cognitive and Primary Appraisals

Cognitive appraisal is the “process of categorizing an encounter, and its various facets, with respect to its significance for well-being,” according to Lazarus and Folkman. Prior to coping with a situation, it must be cognitively evaluated as potentially stressful. Embedded within the appraisal are two cognitive mechanisms: primary and secondary appraisals.

The primary appraisal examines the significance of the stressor, or, what’s at stake. For example, if one could ask, “Am I in trouble or being benefited, now or in the future, and in what ways?” If the answer is yes, the situation is then categorized as either a threat (potential danger to one’s well-being or self-esteem), challenge (suggests that one focuses on the success, the social rewards, and the personal growth that the situation could bring), or a loss (damages or harms that have already taken place).

Lazarus and Folkman contend that threat and challenge appraisals can refer to past incidents or anticipated ones, are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and can occur simultaneously.

Once the significance of the stressor has been determined, the secondary appraisal can be determined. This is done by assessing controllability of the stressor or event and the availability of coping resources. If one has no control over the stressor, it can be deemed threatening. If there is controllability, it may be considered challenging but manageable.

Other Coping Methods

When a stressor or event is considered challenging or manageable, emotions provoked are likely positive and lend to productive coping strategies that lead to adaptive coping outcomes such as academic engagement. One could ask, “Can I cope with this situation?” The answer could indicate confidence in coping or decided coping methods, which can be physical, social, psychological, or material. These efforts can reduce the sense of imbalance caused by the stressor.

Black Americans are especially at risk to microaggressions. Feagin and Sikes agree that what Black students report about their campus experiences, “about what happens to them and how they feel, act, and think” should be taken seriously. Being seen and heard is an essential part of healing. Implementing coping strategies can help students become more empowering, effective, and build the resilience necessary for campus survival.