A Test of Leading Explanations for the College Racial-Ethnic Achievement Gap: Evidence from a Longitudinal Case Study

Abstract

In this study, we examined racial/ethnic differences in grade point average (GPA) among students at a highly selective, private university who were surveyed before matriculation and during the first, second and fourth college years, and assessed prominent explanations for the Black-White and Latino-White college achievement gap. We found that roughly half of the observed gap was attributable to family background characteristics and pre-college academic preparation. Of the within-college factors we considered, perceptions of campus climate and selection of major field of study were most important in explaining racial/ethnic differences in GPA. Personal resources, such as academic effort, self-esteem and academic identification, and patterns of involvement in campus life were significantly associated with GPA, but these factors did not account for racial/ethnic differences in academic performance. Overall, our results suggest that efforts to reduce the college achievement gap should focus on assisting students with the process of selecting major fields of study and on fostering a welcoming and inclusive campus environment.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    For the analysis to follow, racial/ethnic categories were based on pre-college survey questions that asked if the respondent was Hispanic and then elicited a racial category (or categories). If survey data were missing, information from the admissions form was used to classify students. About 4 % (n = 47) of the sample members were international students (i.e., temporary residents); these students were classified to one of the five racial/ethnic categories: Asian (n = 33), White (n = 9), multiracial/other (n = 3), Black (n = 1) and Latino (n=1).

  2. 2.

    As the GPA variable was negatively skewed, we tested alternative measures of academic performance. In analysis available upon request, the results described below were entirely consistent with models that predicted percentile rank in class rather than GPA.

  3. 3.

    Missing values for family income (8 % missing) were replaced with a regression-predicted score using variables for racial/ethnic group, parent’s education and occupational status, and interest in financial aid. No other variable included in this study contained more than 2 % missing values, which were replaced by mean imputation.

  4. 4.

    To calculate standardized coefficients, we divided interval-ratio and ordinal variables by two standard deviations to allow more direct comparisons with categorical variables (Gelman 2008).

  5. 5.

    About 73 % of Black and Latino students who initially majored a natural science major reported a change by the second year, compared to 57 % of White and 45 % of Asian prospective natural science majors (\(\chi^{ 2}_{( 4)}\) = 8.09, p < .05). There were no significant differences in the frequency of changes among first year engineering, social science or arts/humanities majors.

  6. 6.

    In an alternative specification, there were no significant associations with GPA for weekly time spent in extracurricular activities or interacting with faculty outside of class.

  7. 7.

    To further consider differences across racial/ethnic groups, we conducted Wald tests for equality of coefficients between each pairing (e.g., Black vs. Latino) for all models included in Tables 1 and 2 and incorporating the Bonferroni correction for multiple comparisons. In the baseline model (Table 1, Model 1), the coefficient for Black students was significantly lower than for Latino, Asian and multiracial students, and the coefficient for Latino students was significantly lower than for Asian students. In all other models, only the difference between coefficients for Black and Asian students was significant.

  8. 8.

    Honors recognition, collected from official transcripts, included Latin (summa, magna or cum laude) and departmental honors. Latin honors were awarded to students with final GPA above the top quartile threshold for the previous year’s graduating class, determined separately for the schools of engineering and arts and sciences.

  9. 9.

    Among students who reported a major change in the year two survey, 41 % of Black and 35 % of Latino students reported that they changed due to academic difficulty, compared to 19 % of other students (\(\chi^{ 2}_{( 4)}\) = 11.20, p < .001).

  10. 10.

    Occupation or job title in the fall of 2011 (five or six years after graduation) was available from self-reported profiles to the Duke Alumni Association subset of respondents (n = 345). Notably, 11 % of Black students report being a teacher, compared to 4 % of other students.

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Acknowledgments

The Campus Life & Learning data were collected by A.Y. Bryant, Claudia Buchmann and Kenneth I. Spenner (Principal Investigators), with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Duke University. The authors bear full responsibility for the contents herein.

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Correspondence to Nathan D. Martin.

Appendices

Appendices

Appendix 1

See Table 3.

Table 3 Measures and descriptive statistics, by Racial-Ethnic Group

Appendix 2

See Table 4.

Table 4 Scale items, reliability coefficients and factor loadings

Appendix 3

See Table 5.

Table 5 Random coefficient models predicting GPA: results for variables not shown in Table 2

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Martin, N.D., Spenner, K.I. & Mustillo, S.A. A Test of Leading Explanations for the College Racial-Ethnic Achievement Gap: Evidence from a Longitudinal Case Study. Res High Educ 58, 617–645 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-016-9439-6

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Keywords

  • Campus climate
  • Elite education
  • Racial/ethnic inequality
  • Student involvement