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The effects of Campus Climate on Students Achievements

Student success in college is facilitated by the campus climate of the college or university which the student attends. Campus climate is defined as a set of beliefs and attitudes that drive the environment of institutions of higher education (Hamilton, 2006; Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pederson, & Allen, 1999). Research has found that campus climate significantly influences student performance, retention, and graduation rates (Edgert, 1994; Hurtado et al., 1998). For some students of under-represented racial groups who attend predominantly White institutions, the campus climate is often perceived as being less than hospitable.

In 1992, Hurtado published results from one of the first studies of campus climate. She reported findings from a four year follow-up survey sponsored by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), sponsored by the University of California, Los Angeles. Results indicated that approximately 25% of survey respondents either experienced or witnessed elevated levels of racial conflict on their campuses. Findings from the study also indicated that White students were less likely to report having experienced racial tension on their campuses and Whites were less likely to perceive racism as being problematic in American society.

On campuses where a positive campus climate has been achieved, the anticipation would be that there would be a high level of intergroup contact. One would also expect to find that diverse cultural groups would give equal ratings on an instrument that measures perceptions of campus climate.

These past inequities shape the lenses through which individuals perceive institutions of higher education. Therefore, due to past racial inequities in America’s educational system, members from under-represented racial groups may be more sensitive and attuned to various real or perceived educational inequities. Consequently, individuals from under-represented racial groups may perceive their campus climates less positively than their White counterparts.

Another factor which affects perceptions of campus climate is the degree to which individuals experience a feeling of belongingness or connectedness to their college campuses. A feeling of belongingness in turn affects the degree to which an individual identifies with the norms of the larger group. Social identity theory discusses the mechanisms by which individuals develop self-identity or self-concept with the context of a group.

Cumulatively, results from past studies indicate that “students who attend racially diverse institutions are engaged in educationally purposeful activities that involve interactions with peers form different racial backgrounds. These students come to enjoy cognitive, psychosocial and interpersonal gains that are useful during and after college” (Harper & Hurtado, 2005, p. 14). According to Saenz, Nagi, and Hurtado (2007), students who interact with students from diverse populations during college are more likely to maintain those interactions after college, thus disrupting patterns of segregation that individuals may have experienced prior to attending college.

College campuses are complex social systems. They are defined by the relationships between faculty, staff, students, and alumni; bureaucratic procedures embodied by institutional policies; structural frameworks; institutional missions, visions, and core values; institutional history and traditions; and larger social contexts (Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pederson, Alma, & Allen, 1998).

Edinboro University’s mission statement suggests that higher education values multicultural awareness and understanding within an environment of mutual respect and cooperation. The university expends a great deal of effort fostering a climate to nurture their mission with the understanding that climate has a profound effect on student success. “Edinboro has a strategic plan that advocates creating welcoming and inclusive climates that are grounded in respect, nurtured by dialogue, and evidenced by a pattern of civil interaction” (personal communication Dr. Jeremy Brown 07/27/10). The climate on college campuses not only affects the creation of knowledge, but also affects members of the academic community who, in turn, contribute to the creation of the campus climate. Currently, Edinboro University is preparing to conduct a study on campus climate. As I searched for a similar university for my study, Dr. Ivan Chompalov (EUP Dept Chair-Sociology) directed me toward Millersville University, which completed a study on campus climate. The following section of this paper includes the description and direction [1] of Millersville’s campus climate (Used by permission: Millersville Administration Office 07/28/10).

Millersville University Campus Climate

Millersville University has a long history of supporting diversity initiatives as evidenced by the institution’s support and commitment to this climate assessment project. In 2002, the Social Equity Committee (SEC) with the full support of the President’s Advisory Council (PAC) embarked on the initial campus climate project. The results of that report informed the Strategic

Plan for Equity, Diversity, and Community: 2003-2008. In 2009, the Social Equity Strategic Planning Advisory Committee (SESPAC) requested a follow-up assessment to examine the current climate at Millersville University. Rankin & Associates (R&A) was again retained to assist in the assessment process as an identified leader in conducting multiple identity studies in higher education.

SESPAC committee members reviewed the survey template and revised the instrument to better match the current campus context at Millersville University. The final survey contained 103 questions, including open-ended questions for respondents to provide commentary. This report provides an overview of the findings of the internal assessment, including the results of the campus-wide survey and a thematic analysis of comments provided by survey respondents.

All members of the campus community (e.g., students, faculty, staff, and administrators) were invited to participate in the survey. The survey was designed for respondents to provide information about their personal experiences with regard to climate issues, their perceptions of the campus climate, student and employee satisfaction, and respondents’ perceptions of institutional actions, including administrative policies and academic initiatives regarding climate issues and concerns on campus.

To allow constituent groups the opportunity to respond to the assessment findings and to provide suggested revisions and/or further clarifications members of SESPAC reviewed a draft of the final report in July 2009. A summary of the findings, presented in bullet form below, suggests that while challenges still exist with regard to diversity issues, similar challenges are found in many other higher education institutions across the country.

Qualitative Findings

Out of the 775 surveys received at Millersville University, several respondents contributed remarks to the open-ended questions. No respondents commented on all open-ended questions. The open-ended questions asked whether their campus experiences differed from experiences in the surrounding community and for general elaboration of personal experiences and thoughts.

Of the respondents who provided comments regarding these questions, they were divided between whether attention to diversity was a positive or negative aspect of Millersville University. Many praised the institution’s efforts to create a welcoming atmosphere, asserted that the climate had improved in recent years, and/or suggested the campus would further benefit from further actions to promote diversity. Others believed, however, that diversity efforts were over-emphasized or have led to reverse discrimination.

While many respondents reported positive experiences with diversity and diversity initiatives, some individuals described common experiences of lack of adequate responses to specific types of complaints. It is not suggested that these experiences are typical, or that the conclusions drawn by the commenter are accurate representations of what happened. Rather, these examples “give voice” to the experiences reported in the quantitative findings of the report. As mentioned in the comments, some respondents indicated they would not report complaints because of perceived lack of support.

Next Steps

Institutions of higher education seek to create an environment characterized by equal access for all students, faculty, and staff regardless of cultural, political, or philosophical differences, where individuals are not just tolerated but valued. Creating and maintaining a community environment that respects individual needs, abilities, and potential is one of the most critical initiatives that universities and colleges undertake. A welcoming and inclusive climate is grounded in respect, nurtured by dialogue, and evidenced by a pattern of civil interaction.

Conclusion

That stated, what do the results of this study suggest? At minimum, they add additional empirical data to the current knowledge base and provide more information on the experiences and perceptions for several sub-populations in the campus community. As to the findings themselves, aside from the aforementioned finding that a majority of respondents from historically marginalized groups experience harassment, the results parallel those from similar investigations at higher education institutions across the country. My current institution is similar to Millersville which reflects my interest in this type of institution. I would like to thank Millersville University for their assistance in, and permission to, duplicate their study.

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