Reassurance About College Transition Raises Black Students' GPA's, Stanford Psychologists Say

March 17, 2011

When black students reflected on the idea that everybody, regardless of race or ethnicity, initially struggles to adjust to college, their academic performance and longer-term well-being benefited, according to a paper published on Thursday in the journal Science.

Psychologists at Stanford University enrolled 92 second-semester freshmen at an unidentified selective college in their study. The researchers divided them into two groups, each comprised of about half black students and half white students. One group participated in an hourlong session stressing that social adversity in the transition to college is common and short-lived. The other focused not on belonging but general social and political attitudes.

In the "treatment" group, students read statistical results and open responses from a survey that had been tweaked by the researchers to emphasize that most upperclassmen had worried about fitting in at first but had developed a sense of belonging over time. The participants were instructed to write personal essays and deliver speeches echoing the survey.

Over the next three years, grade-point averages of black students in the treatment group surpassed those of black students in the control group, which were similar to those of black students in that academic class who did not participate in the study. About 22 percent of black students in the treatment group graduated in the top quarter of their class, compared with about 5 percent of black students who hadn't participated.

The intervention reduced the GPA gap between black and white students by 52 percent, the researchers found.

In addition, as seniors, black students who had discussed the concept of belonging reported fewer doctors' visits, better health, and higher levels of happiness than did their black classmates.

White students did not show similar benefits of the intervention, which did not surprise the researchers, Gregory M. Walton, an assistant professor of psychology, and Geoffrey L. Cohen, a professor of psychology and education.

"Because African-American students experience relatively greater uncertainty about their belonging in school, they were expected to benefit from the intervention more than nonminority students," they wrote.

The researchers suggested that their discussion of belonging may have shifted students' perceptions such that their early successes reinforced their confidence. "Brief interventions that shore up belonging can thus promote performance and well-being," they wrote, "even long after their delivery."