How Did You Get In? Attributions of Preferential Selection In College Admissions

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2006-12-15

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Minorities are often suspected beneficiaries (e.g., Heilman, 1994) of affirmative action--that is, they are individuals who attribute or perceive that others attribute their selection for a job or admission to a school, in part, to preference given to race or gender status. Experimental research has shown that suspected beneficiaries experience negative self-evaluations, yet little research has focused on performance outcomes. I draw upon attribution theory (e.g., Kelly, 1972) and stereotype threat theory (C. M. Steele & Aronson, 1995) to extend the literature by examining the emotions and academic performance of freshmen college students who are suspected beneficiaries. I hypothesize that racial minorities are more likely than are Whites, and women are more likely than are men, to be suspected beneficiaries of racial and gender preference, respectively. These attributions lead to decreased academic self-efficacy and increased evaluation apprehension and anxiety, which ultimately decrease academic performance. Additionally, I pose research questions to explore factors that mitigate the effect of attributions on these outcomes.

I use structural equation modeling to test my hypotheses. The results suggest that racial minorities and women are more likely than Whites and men, respectively, to be suspected beneficiaries. Further, attributions of racial and gender preference lead to the hypothesized negative outcomes. I find that past academic performance moderates the relation between attributions of gender preference and anxiety, such that students who scored higher on the SAT and (perceive that others) attribute their admission to gender preference experience more anxiety than do students who scored lower on the SAT and (perceive that others) attribute their admission to gender preference. Additionally, social support moderates the relation between attributions of racial preference and evaluation apprehension, such that students who receive high levels of social support and (perceive that others) attribute their admission to racial preference experience less evaluation apprehension than do students who receive low levels of social support and (perceive that others) attribute their admission to racial preference. Overall, the results support the perception that uncertainty in the selection process can lead to attributions of preferential selection and harmful consequences for racial minorities and women.

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