As the nation grows more racially diverse, schools and colleges must work to erase racial stereotypes and ignorance that still impede the uniting of white and minority students, said psychologist Nancy Cantor, PhD, during a session at the 2004 Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) Biennial Convention.

"We all have a long way to go in getting to know each other--not to mention getting to like each other," said Cantor, the chancellor of Syracuse University.

Many stereotypes arise because white and minority college students often fear the other group will shut them out of educational and job opportunities, said Cantor, a former provost at the University of Michigan. There, lawsuits emerged from white applicants alleging the university did not accept them because its quota system for admissions unfairly favored minority applicants. Cantor helped to successfully advocate for the university's constitutional right to use race in its admission policies to create a diverse student body.

Cantor joined a panel of four other psychologists to highlight research on such topics as academic identity, stigma and interethnic relationships as well as some policy recommendations to bolster diversity in the nation's colleges and schools.

The presenters, who documented their studies in the March issue of the Journal of Social Issues (Vol. 60, No. 1), highlighted some of their findings:

  • Potential shapers of minority students' social connections and academic identity include student friendships, perceptions such as how much a school welcomes diversity, and its ethnic composition, according to research by psychologist Sabrina A. Zirkel, PhD, of the Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center. Her studies have found that elementary and middle school students of color are more isolated at majority white schools, which in turn leads them to do poorly in their coursework, Zirkel said.

  • Exposure to diverse interactions with students outside one's own racial group--such as through curricula, multicultural events and residence halls--tends to positively influence education and social development, said psychologist Gretchen E. Lopez, PhD, of Syracuse University. Such exposure, she said, tends to help students perceive commonality with diverse groups, participate in their own racial group activities as well as others' and support educational equity.

  • Students of color generally have positive expectations of teachers, but their expectations decline when imagining the class with a white instructor, found psychologist Lisa M. Brown, PhD, of the National Institute of Mental Health's Center for the Study of Emotion and Attention, in research she described. Further, students of color--more so than white students--perceive that intolerant instructors will grade them unfairly, Brown noted.

To improve interethnic student-teacher relationships, Brown suggests institutions increase the number of minority instructors, educate faculty about mentoring, grade "blind" to avoid bias and increase faculty awareness and support of student diversity.

Ultimately, college choice often is a reflection of identity, and students are drawn to environments in which they're "reflected in powerful ways" and feel central to the educational enterprise, said psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD, president of Spelman College, a historically black college for women.

"While college campuses are more diverse today than in 1954, historically white institutions are still struggling to understand the ABC's of creating truly inclusive environments--affirming identity, building community and cultivating leadership," Tatum said.