Disseminating the Truth About Affirmative Action
A recent preliminary study conducted at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln showed disturbing trends in the perceptions of prospective graduate students toward affirmative action and minority students. This investigation entailed in-depth interviews with self-identified Caucasian female undergraduates applying to graduate programs in psychology and psychology-related fields.
Respondents attributed a variety of false meanings to affirmative action policies in graduate school admissions. They ranged from benign associations, such as special funding opportunities for minority students, to more negative connotations such as the ideas of preferences, quotas, percentages and reserved slots for minority students. Furthermore, some respondents maintained that affirmative action policies adversely affected their graduate admissions into some departments. Specifically, these participants noted that although they were female, being Caucasian probably had a negative impact on their overall graduate admissions chances.
But perhaps more alarmingly, doubts about minority students’ intellectual abilities and admissions qualifications emerged. When asked to report what thoughts came to mind if they were to notice that a minority student was experiencing academic difficulties, one participant replied:
“If I noticed that they [minority students] were doing sloppy work…I would wonder how they got into the program considering they were supposed to take the top applicants…I think that my perception would be that obviously the university really wanted minority students and that maybe they took somebody who was less qualified…I mean the White student probably didn’t get in because of their minority status…”
It appears that some groups are prone to attributing minority students’ academic difficulties to inferior intellectual qualifications. These negative attributions make it particularly difficult for minority students to establish their academic credibility, and may hinder majority students’ willingness to engage in collegial working relationships with minority students.
The findings hold a number of implications for programs in higher education. The issue surrounding prospective graduate students’ false associations about affirmative action policies in graduate admissions warrants important consideration. It carries significant relevance in college settings where students, faculty and student personnel are ill informed about the policy and practice of affirmative action in higher education. Furthermore, this finding sheds light on the importance of developing programs designed to properly educate students, faculty, administrators and student personnel about affirmative action.
The need to develop these kinds of educational programs cannot be overemphasized, particularly in Midwestern universities located in nonmetropolitan areas. Compared to other sections in the country, most notably the coastal regions of the United States, the sociocultural milieu in the Midwest may be less conducive to open discussions of politically charged topics like affirmative action. Perhaps students at various Midwestern universities are less inclined to openly discuss these issues, thereby limiting their ideas.
Faculty and college officials can address the issue in a variety of different ways. One possibility is to design graduate program curricula including courses that inform and educate graduate students about minority populations and race-related issues in higher education. Faculty and college officials also can combine their efforts by inviting minority speakers or expert scholars in the area of minority research to speak to students, college administrators and faculty. Additionally, programs aimed at providing support for minority graduate students are needed.
In order to progress from the current state of potentially damaging ignorance regarding affirmative action, staff members must increase their attempts to retain minority students by promoting diversity programs, thereby decreasing implicit hostility in the learning environment. n
— Zamboanga is a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and Parker is an associate professor of sociology and assistant dean of graduate studies, both at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com