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Graduate Students’ Experience and Perceptions of Campus Climate and Racial Pressure

19 March 2018


Universities and colleges are making broader efforts to recruit and retain minorities to make their campuses more representative of America’s demographic makeup. However, there still remain gaps in college enrollment between racial and ethnic minority (REM) students and White students in the education pipeline. There are multiple cultural and personal factors that prohibit REM students from enrolling in or completing post-secondary education, including campus climate. In regards to retention, studies have found that racial and ethnic minorities have reported negative experiences with campus climate. The purpose of this study was two-fold. The study explored two different related research questions through a mixed method research design. In the quantitative design of the study, the research attempted to understand graduate students’ perception and experiences of campus climate as measured by the Cultural Attitudes and Climate Questionnaire (CACQ). In addition, the study explored whether collective self-esteem contributed to graduate student’s experience and perception of their campus climate. Based on the findings of the first phase of the study, the second phase of the study explored how racial ethnic minority students perceived and experienced racial pressure on their campus.

The quantitative study used archival data from surveys from 209 professional and graduate students (77% female) from a health profession campus in a predominantly White institution. The survey asked about students’ experiences and perceptions of campus climate across ten factors: Racial Tension, Cross Cultural Comfort, Diversity Awareness, Racial Pressure, Fair Treatment, Faculty Racism, Respect for Other Cultures, Lack of Support, Comfort with Own Culture, and Overall Satisfaction. Participants were also asked to complete a collective self-esteem scale. Standard multiple regressions were used to assess which factors influence positive and negative experiences with campus climate. Results from the standard multiple regressions for both of these aims demonstrated that racial tension, faculty racism, and lack of support were the strongest predictors of negative experiences amongst all students, R = .64 R2 = .41, F(4, 204) = 35.75, p < .001. The findings also confirmed that the strongest predictors of positive experiences and perceptions of campus climate were fair treatment and respect for other cultures, R = .69 R2 = .34, F(5, 203) = 21.01, p < .001. Multivariate analyses of variance (MANOVA) were used to compare differences between REM students, biracial students, and White students’ experiences with their campus climate and the factors related to campus climate and found a significant difference regarding perceived racial pressure between REM students and White students, F(2, 205) = 6.02, p = .003, partial eta squared (ηp2) = .06. A Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient was used to assess the relationship between graduate student’s overall satisfaction with their campus climate and their Collective Self-Esteem and a small correlation between the two variables was found, r(207) = .28, p < .001.

To get a better understanding of graduate students’ experiences with racial pressure and to complement the quantitative findings of the study, the author recruited 20 graduate students to participate in one of three focus groups and shared their perceptions and experiences of racial pressure on their campus climate. The data was transcribed, organized and analyzed using Atlas.ti software by two researchers. Three overarching themes emerged from the data and were central in the evaluation and development of racial pressure on campus: (1) definition of racial pressure (2) experiences of racial pressure on campus, and (3) feelings and reactions to racial pressure. Consequently, these themes produced several subthemes regarding pressures students experienced which included expectations to represent their own culture in a favorable manner, assimilation into the dominant culture, minimizing characteristics of one’s racial ethnic culture, presence of White pedagogy, pressure to succeed, alienation, and guilt.

This study contributes to the literature on experiences and perceptions of campus climate for graduate students. It also contributes towards the literature on racial pressure experiences in education. Findings indicate that REM graduate students perceive and experience racial pressure differently than White graduate students. Racial pressure has contributed to additional feelings of isolation and guilt REM graduate students’ experience on campus. The present study also indicates that exploring how students in higher education experience campus climate might provide insight into additional challenges and barriers that REM students experience on their campus and highlights how academia may still be embedded into perspectives of White culture.


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