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This issue examines what has happened for students and for schools in the fifty years since the Brown v Board of Education (1954) decision. Brown was to mark the beginning of the United States' move towards full racial and ethnic integration in public K-12 education by providing equal access for all students, regardless of racial of ethnic background. But once through the front door, are all students given the same opportunities to succeed? In our study, we look at whether black and white students have equal opportunities to succeed in post-secondary education--defined here as persisting through to graduate from college.
Why is graduation from college important? Why isn't it enough to have legally equal access to education, including higher education, as mandated by Brown? After all, it appears that 50 years after Brown, high school graduation rates and college admission rates reflect a shift towards racial equality in post-secondary educational access: almost 80% of Black Americans under the age of 25 now have a high school degree or equivalent, as do almost 85% of White Americans (U.S. Census, 2001); and over 70% of all high school graduates now enter some form of higher education (Barley & Merritt, 1997).
Yet it is our contention that high school graduation and college admission rates mask current and persistent social inequities since a college degree is now the educational threshold for economic success (much like a high school degree was a generation ago): First, for those entering college, 56% of Black Americans, compared to 36% of White Americans, never graduate (that is, they neither reenroll somewhere else nor "stop out" in order to graduate at a later time; U.S. Census, 2001). Second, college graduates earn about twice the income that non-graduates earn (even if they had some college): in 1999 monthly income was about $3800 per month for college graduates vs. $2000 per month for non-graduates (with Black Americans earning about 83% of what White Americans earn; U.S. Census, 2001) Additionally, and despite the economic boom in the 1990's, real income has declined over the past two decades for all segments of the population except those with college degrees (U.S. Census, 2001).
We explore the notion that students are most likely to persist in college when a match exists between how they expect to succeed (i.e., where they put their attention and energy) and how the institution expects them to succeed. We assume that an inherent match will exist for majority-status students in an institution, and an inherent mismatch will exist for students in a minority status. Thus, we hypothesize that these matches will exist for White students at institutions whose student populations have historically been White and whose student populations remain predominantly White (here called predominantly white institutions, or PWIs) and for Black students at historically black colleges and universities (or HBCUs, so designated by the U.S. Department of Education; The National Center for Education Statistics, 2001, shows that students attending HBCUs are, predominantly, Black Americans while those attending PWIs are, predominantly, White Americans.) Likewise, we hypothesize that mismatches will exist for black students at PWIs, and when these students do remain in school, it is because they have worked harder to adapt to their institution's norms and expectations.
College and Student Expectations About How to Succeed
For any student to persist in college, he or she must learn to ad apt to that college's formal and informal rules and expectations for success (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991; Singer, 2001). Students must "read" and respond correctly to the messages within the college culture for how to interact with peers and with faculty and staff, for how to succeed in class, for how to access needed resources, and for how to take best advantage of important collegiate opportunities (Brower, 1997; Niedenthal, Cantor, & Kihlstrom, 1985).
Universities and colleges, too, develop expectations about how their students will succeed that are products of the evolution of the institution as it has adapted to its constituents (von Bertalanffy, 1968; Goffman, 1959). Giroux describes this in K-12 education as the "hidden curriculum"--those messages and values that privilege some at the expense of others (Giroux & Purpel, 1983.) Specific colleges and universities develop its rules and expectations based on the students who have attended, the faculty, staff, and administrators who have worked there, and the trustees, alumni, and state government (if a public university) who have a stake in its operation. Colleges and universities will evolve to respond to the "mainstream" or aggregate of its student body (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). If it's a regional college in Oklahoma, it will develop services, courses, guidelines for interaction, standards, and expectations tailored to the students attending from the region surrounding the institution. If it is a private women's college on the east coast, an HBCU in the south, or a publicly-funded Research 1 university in the Midwest, the institution will likewise develop services, courses, guidelines, standards, and expectations tailored to its student body.
We hypothesize that when a how-to-succeed-in-college match exists between students and an institution, students will succeed in the way they expected to and in the way the college or university expected them to. Those students whose expectations for how to succeed already substantially match the rules and expectations of the institution will not have to change much order to succeed, and the institution will likewise not have to change to accommodate them. However, when students' expectations for being a successful college student do not match those of their institution, several options exist: students can make dramatic changes in the way they engage with college life, becoming more like the institution's mainstream image; they will not adapt much but may remain in school anyway, leaving them feeling constantly misunderstood and like an outsider; they may force the institution to make its own changes to accommodate to their needs and desires; or they may simply leave the institution (Merton, 1957).
Do Inherent Mismatches Exist for Black Students at PWIs?
Prior to Brown, HBCUs were the predominant option available to Black students who attended college, with the percentages attending HBCUs vs. PWIs changing dramatically after 1954. Over 90% of Black college graduates gained their degrees from HBCUs prior to Brown, while 17% of Black students attended HBCUs as of 1996 (Kim, 2002). Because choice is now available, choosing to attend an HBCU is a declarative, and somewhat political, decision based on value-based aspirations and expectations about oneself and on one's value-based perceptions of the institution (Kim, 2002).
The psychological meaning of going to college has an important role in identity development (Tatum, this issue). When students select colleges, they do so because they express something important about the type of person the student wants to become (Hossler, Braxton, & Coopersmith, 1989). But it is also true that students are shaped by their colleges--over their years in college they become increasingly more like who the college wants them to be (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).
While most of the studies of this symbiotic identity development process have been done with White students at PWIs, others have written about these same processes for Black students attending HBCUs. Results have been inconsistent on the effect on student development and persistence of attending an HBCU. Fleming's oft-cited qualitative study (Fleming, 1984) found that the "immersion experience" of attending an HBCU allows its students to address assumptions about self-concept as it relates to living with institutional racism. Fleming (1982, 1984) and Allen (1992) found that Black students attending HBCUs received more academic and social support services than Black students attending PWIs. Allen (1987) contrasted services and benefits of HBCUs and PWIs, finding that Black students attending HBCUs attain cultural connectedness, have a greater sense of well being, and were provided additional and more diverse academic and program options. Looking at other specific academic outcomes, however, Kim (2002) found no significant differences between HBCUs and PWIs in their ability to influence overall academic ability, writing ability, and math ability.
Research findings have been consistent when describing how Black students at PWIs cope with their feelings of social isolation, discrimination, aggression, and/or general dissatisfaction by adopting a sense of "belonging-within-alienation." Research has shown that Black students at PWIs very often feel connected to others with similar racial or ethnic backgrounds while the whole group remains alienated from the campus at large (Bristow, 2002; Gloria, Kurpius, Hamilton, & Wilson, 1999; Loo & Rolison, 1986).
One finding is important to point out here: We found no evidence that Black or White students, either because of expectations or preparation, are inherently more or less able to succeed in college. The vast majority of new college students expect to succeed in college (for example, Rowser, 1997, found this to be true for over 90% of both Black and White students attending PWIs) and, in fact, the majority of all students do.
The questions we are raising concern how students are encouraged to succeed in college, the extent to which they must adapt and change because of the institution in which they reside, and ultimately, the institution's responsibility to be flexible enough to allow a truly diverse student body to succeed in different ways. If an …