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One stereotype about college is that the experience encourages students to be more interested in diversity and promoting racial understanding. To some this is a great virtue of higher education; to critics, this suggests academe is too focused on diversity. What if they are all wrong?

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.

The study is by Jesse D. Rude, a principal research analyst at NORC at the University of Chicago; Gregory C. Wolniak, a senior research scientist at NORC at the University of Chicago; and Ernest Pascarella, the Mary Louise Petersen Professor of Higher Education at the University of Iowa. 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." Students were asked the question upon arriving at college, at the end of their freshman year, and at the end of their senior year.

Ranking the importance of promoting racial understanding on a four-point scale, African American students started off with the highest score (above 3.2), followed by Hispanics (just below 3.2), Asians (around 2.9) and whites (just under 2.5). 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.

The research doesn't yield information on why the students change as they do, but the study looked for correlations between certain college experiences (in and out of the classroom) and found that any of these four circumstances increase the chances that college will leave students more committed to promoting racial understanding: interracial friendships, frequent discussions with other-race students, frequent discussions with faculty members whose views differ from their own, and taking courses that focus on diverse cultures and perspectives.

Those findings leave the authors seeing the possibility that college could be a force that encourages students to be more committed to promoting racial understanding. But if many students lack those experiences, they may not care.

"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.

But they add: "An implication of these findings for postsecondary institutions with racially diverse campuses is that efforts to broaden students’ racial views should extend beyond multicultural course requirements. Colleges that can take steps that promote environments conducive for cross-race friendship and other forms of positive interaction may have an even greater impact on students’ racial attitudes."

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