Racial tensions on college campuses: What do data tell us about student tolerance?

Mari Normyle

Assistant Vice President for Retention Solutions

November 18, 2015

As we watch the racial and social justice issues being addressed at the University of Missouri, we are reminded that college campuses truly are microcosms of our broader society and face the same issues and challenges. Within our institutions for higher learning, we have a unique opportunity for creating and facilitating honest discourse around the issues, and then identifying specific strategies to build a more welcoming and inclusive community. This important work of expanding each person’s opinion tolerance – the comfort or acceptance students have (and that we ourselves have) with others who think differently on major social issues, including race – isn’t easy nor is it accomplished quickly.

College students’ opinion tolerance—a brief look at the data

Examining student demographics, attitudes, and motivations can be helpful in understanding today’s tensions. Ruffalo Noel Levitz annually publishes the National Freshman Attitudes Report, which explores 85 noncognitive attitudes and motivations of nearly 100,000 college freshmen. Every two years, the data are presented by race and ethnicity, in addition to gender, institution type, and age. Understanding these data can inform campus-specific conversations on the issues. For example, as indicated in the chart below, nearly two-thirds of Black/African-American students have high levels of tolerance for people who have different opinions about social issues.

Tolerance among incoming college freshmen
Approximately 60 percent of incoming college freshman said they get along with those who disagree with them or share different views on social issues (click to enlarge).

Next, put this in the context of the strong commitment that students have to earning a college degree and to making the sacrifices necessary to achieve that goal:

College students of color and desire to graduate with a college degree
More than 90 percent of incoming college freshmen said they are strongly dedicated to finishing college no matter what (click to enlarge).

(These results are from the Addendum by Race/Ethnicity, available for download with the 2015 National Freshman Attitudes Report.)

Together, what these data suggest is that this commitment to earning a degree coupled with strong levels of tolerance are strengths that can help foster the necessary dialogues on college campuses about improving conditions for students of color.

Resources that can help us move forward

A 14-point checklist for retaining diverse students at four-year and two-year institutions is available to assist with developing effective strategies for enrollment diversity. The strategies I noted there can serve as a springboard for any campus reviewing and implementing strategies to best serve its diverse populations.

Addressing the needs of diverse populations will also be further explored at an upcoming event:

Symposium on the Recruitment and Retention of Diverse Populations
April 11-12, 2016
Chicago, Illinois
Get details and register

The concerns that are coming to the forefront now have existed for decades and it will take time to make the changes that are necessary to create campus communities that embrace the opportunities that exist from the many talents and strengths of students coming from diverse experiences. Understanding the needs of students is an important part of that change process.

Contact me to discuss your plans and challenges, as well as to share your successful initiatives that relate to effectively serving students of all backgrounds. I’m available at 800.876.1117 or by email.

About the Author

Dr. Mari K. Normyle, assistant vice president for retention solutions, works directly with colleges and universities throughout North America supporting student success and retention efforts through student motivation assessment and early alert programs. With more...

Read more about Mari's experience and expertise

Reach Mari by e-mail at Mari.Normyle@RuffaloNL.com.

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