Emphasis on Individuality in College Admissions Disadvantages Minority Students

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Some students need more than test prep classes to overcome the psychological blocks that keep them from going to college.

A new study published in the latest issue of Review of Policy Research finds alternative reasons why capable students from disadvantaged backgrounds frequently fail to take advantage of the college options available to them. Looking beyond deficiencies in testing and a lack of exposure to scholarship information, author Jennifer A. Zimbroff cites social identity, self-contrast, and group identity among several core reasons. She finds that inherent to the American experience is an emphasis on individuality — found in both college applications and the decision to leave family and friends for school. Many disadvantaged students come from racial and ethnic minority populations that are collectivist, the opposite of American individuality. These students may find the self-promotional and competitive nature of college admissions offensive, if not impossible. In contrast to advantaged students, Zimbroff states that “…they may fear threats to their values and morality, as well as disruptions to the ties of their family and community support networks.” As a result, disadvantaged students may choose safer options like part or full-time employment.

Eighty-five students from a disadvantaged high school completed a five-part questionnaire to examine the relevance of self-identity in college admissions. The questionnaire used fill-in-the-blanks to test if a student’s self-concept tended to lean towards the individualistic or collective. Next, the students imagined filling out their applications, committing to a college, and the characteristics of their model school to express their concerns, opinions about college life, and ideal college attributes. Zimbroff found worries about fitting in, personal identity, competence, and preparedness. “Glossy brochures with pictures of minorities, promises of financial assistance, stepped up recruitment, and even currently available directed programs do not counter the fears expressed in this study,” she concludes.    

This study is published in the current issue of Review of Policy Research. Media wishing to receive a PDF of this article please contact journalnews@bos.blackwellpublishing.net

The Review of Policy Research, published on behalf of the Policy Studies Organization is an international peer-reviewed journal devoted to the dissemination of research and insightful commentary on the outcomes and consequences of policy change in domestic and comparative contexts.

Jennifer A. Zimbroff is a law student at Duke University. She has been involved in college admissions from both sides — working as a college admissions apprentice as well as being employed as a college admissions counselor for both advantaged and disadvantaged populations. Ms. Zimbroff is available for media questions and interviews.


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Jill Yablonski
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