Do Minorities Fare Better at Multicultural Colleges?

Black and Hispanic college students experience more loneliness and depression than their white peers, even at schools where whites are the racial minority.
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Class of 2010 graduates from Earlham College. (Photo: earlhamcollege/Flickr)

Class of 2010 graduates from Earlham College. (Photo: earlhamcollege/Flickr)

Last year, a fraternity at the University of Michigan hosted a party themed “Hood Ratchet Thursday.” It did not go over well.

Their black schoolmates took to Twitter to air their grievances, launching the #BBUM hashtag to ignite a conversation about being black at a predominantly white school. The experiences ranged from subtle racism to overt discrimination. In the following months, black students from other predominantly white colleges encouragedsimilardiscussions.

The stress associated with being a racial minority on campus has been linked to mental health issues such as depression and isolation. However, much of the related public debate and research is focused on minority students enrolled in predominantly white institutions.

A study published last month in the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development attempted to evaluate whether the mental health effects of being a racial minority on campus can be mitigated by attending a school that is not predominantly white. The results suggest that racial minorities suffer from mental health issues at higher rates than their white peers, regardless of the racial make-up of their school.

Being a racial or ethnic minority, regardless of majority/minority status within the college community, predicted poorer mental health outcomes, including greater loneliness, depression, and past suicidality.

In 2007, Department of Education numbers indicated that 469 post-secondary schools in the United States had enrollments of more than 50 percent racial minorities, the authors note. That number has continued to increase.

The few previous studies on this topic have yielded contradictory results. In this study, researchers collected data from a predominantly white college (PWC) in upstate New York where only 13 percent of students were black or Hispanic. The other college was a minority-majority commuter college (MMC) in New York City where blacks and Hispanics comprised 64 percent of the student population.

Participants filled out self-report questionnaires measuring the mental health aspects “most commonly associated with dysfunction among college student populations.”

The main takeaway: “We found that being a racial or ethnic minority, regardless of majority/minority status within the college community, predicted poorer mental health outcomes, including greater loneliness, depression, and past suicidality.”

The last data point is especially poignant since, in the general population, blacks and Hispanics have similar or lower suicide rates than whites. However, the study did show that whites had slightly higher rates of current suicidal thoughts than their black and Hispanic peers, which fits more closely with population data.

Surprisingly, the data also showed that all students at the MMC (regardless of race) scored higher than students at the PWC on depression, loneliness, anger, suicidal ideation, and non-suicidal self harm.

Of course, these conclusions are about two specific colleges with differing racial make-ups. The researchers note several other limitations to the study, including that they did not incorporate socioeconomic status as a factor or separate data from black and Hispanic participants.

While it's heartening to see a trend of racial diversification at colleges and universities, this study shows that underlying inequality continues to follow minority students. The researchers write: “Stated simply, in the face of repeated exposure to sociocultural stress, maladaptive habits are formed, and over time, these habits no longer change simply because the initial stressor is removed."

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