Identity Threats in Higher Education: Implications for College Outcomes of Under-Represented Students of Color

Awarded Scholars:
Sabrina Zirkel, Mills College
Mary Murphy, Indiana University
Julie Garcia, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
Project Date:
Mar 2015
Award Amount:

  • July 2016: Additional funding of $10,000 awarded to support additional data analysis and manuscript development.

Although college enrollment of students of color has been increasing over the past thirty years, graduation rates for African American and Latino students are still significantly lower than those of their peers. Furthermore, their representation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields lags behind that of other groups. Why are there fewer African American and Latino/a students pursuing and completing college degrees, especially in STEM fields?

Academic researchers, employers, and others have offered many explanations for the under-representation of minorities (and women). For example, both socialization and discrimination are associated with differences in the choice of STEM majors and careers among racial and ethnic minorities. Inequalities in primary and secondary education that are correlated with academic performance also matter. However, even when one controls for academic and socioeconomic characteristics, the STEM gap persists. Social psychology research has also shown that the awareness of self-relevant stereotypes is associated with negative effects on enrollment and performance in academic subjects. This project builds on theories of stereotype threat by examining how situational cues in college classes affect minority students’ interests, aspirations, persistence, and performance in STEM fields. It focuses on situational cues, and perceptions of instructors’ beliefs about learning and intelligence and how these cues impact the college experiences of African American and Latino students.

Social psychologists Sabrina Zirkel, Mary Murphy and Julie Garcia have gathered longitudinal annual survey data, including experience-sampling data, on the first year of college. The data comprise goals, plans, interests and majors, as well as psychological and physical wellbeing, and administrative data, including admissions records and full transcripts. Data were collected over four years, in three colleges that differ in selectivity, proportion of underrepresented minorities in the student body, and STEM versus non-STEM emphasis. The investigators will examine (1) whether and how stereotype threat cues impact the academic performance and persistence of black and Latino college students, and (2) the extent to which students’ perceptions of their instructors’ beliefs about the malleability of intelligence and ability interact with other forms of identity threat in the classroom.


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