Racial Inequality in Critical Thinking Skills: The Role of Academic and Diversity Experiences

Abstract

While racial inequalities in college entry and completion are well documented, much less is known about racial disparities in the development of general collegiate skills, such as critical thinking. Using data from the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, we find substantial inequality in the development of critical thinking skills over four years of college between African American and White students. The results indicate that these inequities are not related to students’ academic experiences in college but are substantially related to their experiences with diversity. These findings have important implications for understanding racial inequality in higher education and considering strategies for addressing observed disparities.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Critical thinking is a term that is often used but rarely clearly defined. In essence, it aims to reflect one’s ability to analyze, synthesize, and/or evaluate information. To date, two standardized assessments of critical thinking most commonly used in published research are the Critical Thinking Test from the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP) developed by the ACT and the collegiate learning assessment (CLA) developed by the Council for Aid to Education. CAAP includes three components: analyzing, evaluating, and extending an argument. CLA similarly includes an analysis and critique of an argument as well as critical reading and evaluation. Although CAAP and CLA are designed very differently, they produce similar results in terms of the overall gains in student performance (Pascarella et al.  2011a). Moreover, a recent validity study of three different tests—CAAP, CLA and MAPP (Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress, developed by the ETS)—supported the measures’ construct validity (Klein et al. 2009).

  2. 2.

    Three institutions participated in multiple waves of the study. A dummy variable for those institutions is included in analysis.

  3. 3.

    Although the number of students in different racial categories is low, it is important to note that the sample examined in this study includes students who entered higher education through four-year institutions and persisted through four years of college. Authors’ calculations indicate that the proportion of African American students in the WNS sample is similar to a comparable sample in the Education Longitudinal Study (ELS), which is a nationally representative sample. The proportion of Asian students is lower in the WNS sample and the comparison cannot be made for Hispanic students because ELS uses different racial/ethnic categories.

  4. 4.

    For a list of studies using the Wabash National Study data, see: http://www.liberalarts.wabash.edu/research-and-publications/.

  5. 5.

    We include 0.10 statistical significance level in the table given the small number of students in different racial groups.

  6. 6.

    Some studies of cognitive development estimate conditional effects by race. However, that is rarely the focus of their inquiry. The focus is typically on understanding how specific experiences facilitate student development, and conditional effects are reported as a complement to the overall analysis.

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Acknowledgments

Research on this project is supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation. Moreover, data collection and preparation is supported by a grant from the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College to the Center for Research on Undergraduate Education at The University of Iowa.

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Correspondence to Josipa Roksa.

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Roksa, J., Trolian, T.L., Pascarella, E.T. et al. Racial Inequality in Critical Thinking Skills: The Role of Academic and Diversity Experiences. Res High Educ 58, 119–140 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-016-9423-1

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Keywords

  • Critical thinking
  • Race
  • Academic experiences
  • Diversity
  • Inequality
  • College student development