Ethnic Spaces on Campus Positively Impact Minorities, but Not Whites: What are Potential Inclusive Solutions?

A new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science tests how ethnic and cultural spaces on college campuses impact perceptions, experiences, and outcomes for minority and White students. Ethnic spaces increased minority students sense of belonging, their perception of how much the university values minority students, their felt support by the university, and their reported academic engagement. For White students, however, ethnic spaces decreased their perceived support from the university and lowered their reports of future campus engagement; ethnic spaces did increase White’s perception of how much the university values minority students.

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These results are a net positive for universities. As the authors suggest, ethnic spaces are one way in which universities can foster a sense of belonging for minority students on campus—and important component to closing equity gaps in academic outcomes.

Ethnic spaces on college campuses, however, are also subject to debate. There has been a lot of controversy over the years about who can use these spaces, and whether barring White students from these campus spaces is racist (it is), and whether the spaces are being used enough to justify their building cost.

Findings of this new study in SPPS shed some light on some of these controversial issues. On the one hand, ethnic spaces do positively impact minority students, but on the other hand, White students feel less supported. Additional analyses in the paper also show that the positive effects for Black and Hispanic students (the majority of the underrepresented minority sample in this research) are not dependent on actual or perceived usage of the space, “suggesting that [ethnic spaces] served as a signal of a more welcoming university context for underrepresented students” (emphasis added).


So, what are some practical insights that can be gathered from these new findings? First, creating a sense of belonging for underrepresented groups is important and can have a positive impact on those students. Higher education institutions that want to better academic outcomes for all of their students should focus on the idea of institutional belonging. Are ethnic spaces the best way to foster a sense of belonging? Maybe. In my opinion, I think that universities can both create spaces to celebrate ethnic diversity, be inclusive to all students, and be a good financial investment for the university. Finding the sweet spot of all these goals is possible.

It seems that the primary goal of ethnic centers is to give students a space to hang out, be themselves, be around like others, and hold events. For example, here is a description of ethnic spaces at Virginia Tech:

“These centers consist of a room or several rooms, ranging from 564 to 1,400 square feet each, equipped with televisions, sofas, chairs, tables, and bookshelves. But they are more than physical spaces for students to hang out, do homework, rest, and host club meetings, choir rehearsals, and other gatherings. They are judgment-free spaces where students say they can be themselves.”

This is another description of ethnic spaces that were used in the SPPS study at University of Washington:

“In support of the goals of the University of Washington, the Ethnic Cultural Center promotes an inclusive and educational environment by providing programs and services which enhance the communication and exchange of multicultural perspectives and values. The Ethnic Cultural Center provides programs and a learning environment where students and student organizations collaborate, develop and implement programs while building leadership and organizational skills.”

It seems that the goal of ethnic centers should be more than to provide spaces for particular students to hang out, and more focused on supporting particular students in the academic journeys. A good example of a ethnic center that has a clear mission is the University of Utah:

“Using a pan-African lens, the Black Cultural Center seeks to counteract persistent campus-wide and global anti-blackness. The Black Cultural Center works to holistically enrich, educate, and advocate for students, faculty, and staff through Black centered programming, culturally affirming educational initiatives, and retention strategies.

This new center will enact this mission through intentional programmatic learning outcomes, envisioned to build a sense of belonging and community at the U, with the goal of increasing the recruitment and retention of Black students, faculty, and staff. Supporting academic and cultural activities, this center is designed to promote and explore Blackness, equity, justice, and other progressive social change initiatives on campus and within the larger African diasporic community. The broader public mission of the Center is marked by a commitment to community activism and collaboration.”

Ethnic centers should, like the University of Utah, be aiming to provide academic resources for underserved populations, and serve as educational resources for all students, rather than barring certain students from these spaces. Rather than ethnic spaces serving as a signal of belonging, as the research suggest, ethnic centers should aim to be mission-oriented and educationally-based for all students, and the local community.

How could ethnic spaces be inclusive to all students, while still promoting belonging for underrepresented populations? Potentially, the spaces could be educational in their focus, which would also align with the missions of universities. Such spaces could be thought of as museums of sorts, that celebrate human diversity, showcase student and faculty work in relevant areas, and motivate academic engagement within the center. The public could be charged a small admission fee (free for all university students and staff) to help support student organizations. Providing opportunity and incentive for student engagement would likely promote greater use of the centers, too.

Rather than having a separate student union-like buildings or spaces for particular groups, a potential solution could be a single ‘multicultural’ center on college campuses that could showcase and promote unity on campus, rather than exclusion. Such centers would be a place for all students to visit, learn, and engage with, and hold events, with the goal of promoting positive perceptions and belonging for all students on campus.

Research, such as this new study in SPPS, is necessary to evaluate the effects of such spaces on student outcomes. Because ethnic centers are themselves diverse across campuses, it would be useful to compare student perceptions and experiences based on key features of such centers that already exist. Do centers that have a clear educational mission like University of Utah promote a stronger sense of belonging than generic student union-like spaces like at Virginia Tech? Does a single multicultural center that celebrates all types of human diversity have positive effects for minority and White students?

Rather than being just “signals”, universities should strive to create ethnic centers that further educational goals, foster community belonging, and have positive effects on all students.

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