Engaging in the Margins: Exploring Differences in Biracial Students’ Engagement by Racial Heritage

THE FOLLOWING BLOG POST IS AN EXCERPT FROM "Engaging in the Margins: Exploring Differences in Biracial Students’ Engagement by Racial Heritage" ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE JOURNAL OF STUDENT AFFAIRS RESEARCH AND PRACTICE.


The research presented in this article utilizes data from four years of the National Survey of Student Engagement to shed light on the biracial student population and their engagement practices in postsecondary contexts. Specifically, this study explored the ways in which biracial students with different racial heritages engage differently from one another and from their monoracial peers on campus. Study findings complicate the ideology that biracial individuals are a monolithic group, fostering a conversation concerning multiraciality in higher education and providing critical implications for future research and practice.

Engaging in the Margins

From 2010–2014, the multiracial1 undergraduate student population enrolled in U.S. degree- granting, postsecondary institutions increased by 97% (NCES, 2016). While multiracial college students’ presence continues to grow, little higher education research explores multiracial college students’ experiences on campus. In fact, Museus, Lambe Sariñana, Yee, and Robinson (2016) found that over the past 10 years, less than 1% of the scholarly content in the top five higher education journals explicitly focused on multiraciality. Scholars (Museus et al., 2016; Osei-Kofi, 2012) also acknowledged that this small body of literature often centers on multiracial under- graduate students’ identity development, leaving the field under-informed about multiracial students’ experiences outside of identity development, such as their engagement practices.

Student engagement is “characterized as participation in educationally effective practices, both inside and outside of the classroom” (Quaye & Harper, 2015, p. 2). Engagement has been linked to several positive college outcomes, such as college transition (Cabrera, Nora, Terenzini, Pascarella, & Hagerdorn, 1999) and retention (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Stage & Hossler, 2000). Quaye and Harper (2015) stressed the importance of focusing on engagement for multiple populations:

Strategizing ways to increase engagement of various populations, especially those for whom engage- ment is known to be problematic, is a worthwhile endeavor. The gains and outcomes are too robust to leave to chance, and social justice is unlikely to ensue if some students come to enjoy the beneficial byproducts of engagement but others do not. (p. 3)

Yet, multiracial students’ engagement practices remain under-explored, which may stifle practi- tioners’ ability to strategize ways to increase engagement and intentionally foster “robust” out- comes that promote equity and social justice through education for multiracial students.

We focus explicitly on multiracial students’ engagement on campus, as their experiences with race often differ from their monoracial peers (Basu, 2010; Bettez, 2010; Literte, 2010; Nelson- Laird & Niskodé-Dossett, 2010; Renn, 2000). There may also exist varying experiences within the multiracial student population, as racial heritages influence a diversity of experiences for multiracial peoples (Garrod, Kilkenny, & Gomez, 2014; Renn, 2004). We posit that multiracial students’ campus engagement practices differ from their monoracial counterparts and from their multiracial peers with different racial heritages. To explore this hypothesis, and support multiracial students in postsecondary contexts, this research explored one question: how do biracial students with different racial heritages engage differently from one another and from their monoracial peers on campus?

Review of Literature

The following review of literature is divided into three sections. First, we offer a detailed definition of college student engagement. Second, we explore literature that focuses on how race influences monoracial students’ engagement practices on campus. The final section of the review of literature details how multiracial students’ racialized experiences on campus often diverge from their monoracial peers’ experiences. What remains unknown, however, is how multiracial students’ differing experiences with race influences their engagement on campus.

Student Engagement

Engagement involves both the time and effort students put into educationally effective practices, as well as the time and effort institutions put into engaging students (Kuh, Kinzie, Buckley, Bridges, & Hayek, 2007; Quaye & Harper, 2015). We draw from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), a survey project that has explored the engagement practices of undergraduate students for more than 15 years, to define and explore what educationally purpose- ful engagement includes. The NSSE uses 10 engagement indicators, such as quality of interac- tions, student–faculty interaction, and discussions with diverse others, to assess students’ educationally purposeful engagement.

(Monoracial) Students’ Engagement

Early theories of engagement (e.g., Astin, 1984) are often limited by a raceless approach to college students and college students’ development (Patton, McEwen, Rendón, & Howard- Hamilton, 2007). More recently, scholars have focused on the differences in student engagement by race, finding that engagement differs between students of Color and White students (Finley & McNair, 2013; Kuh, 2008) but also differs within student communities of Color when disaggregated by monoracial groupings (Finley & McNair, 2013; Kim, Chang, & Park, 2009; Quaye, Griffin, & Museus, 2014). For example, Kuh (2008) found that engagement in high impact practices (HIPs) is beneficial to all students’ success and learning in higher education but that participation in HIPs appears to be more valuable for students of Color, who often participate in such practices at lower rates than White students. In another study, Kim et al. (2009) found that Asian American students engage less often with and report lower quality of interactions with faculty when compared to other monoracial communities.

Multiracial Students’ Engagement

In preparing for this research, only one study (Harris & BrckaLorenz, 2017) could be located that explicitly focused on biracial college students’ engagement practices. In their research, Harris and BrckaLorenz (2017) used NSSE data to explore the differences in engagement for Black students, White students, and biracial students with Black and White heritage within Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and non-HBCUs. Results from this research suggest that biracial students engage differently than their monoracial peers at both HBCUs and Primarily White Institutions (PWIs). For example, at both institutional types, biracial students engage more in diverse discussions than their monoracial peers. While important, this study is limited by its exploration into only Black/White biracial students’ engagement, leaving other multiracial stu- dents’ engagement practices under-explored.

While research concerning multiracial students’ engagement practices is minimal, findings from the small body of research that focuses on multiracial students sheds light on what engage- ment may look like for this population. Scholars explored how multiracial students have difficulty finding similar peers to relate to (Renn, 2000), believe their peers categorize them as confused or tragic (Bettez, 2010), and encounter challenges to their multiracial identity (Basu, 2010; Museus et al., 2016). Practitioners, coupled with campus structures, may influence multiracial students’ negative perceptions of the campus environment because some leaders of race-oriented student services (ROSS) may not always accommodate multiracial students (Literte, 2010). Recent campus climate literature found that multiracial students “report significantly more discrimination and bias than White and Latina/o students” (Hurtado, Ruiz Alvarado, & Guillermo-Wann, 2015, p. 145) and perceive their campus environments to be less supportive when compared to monoracial peers (Nelson-Laird & Niskodé-Dossett, 2010).

Multiracial identity development literature also sheds light on multiracial students’ engage- ment within academic spaces. For instance, Renn (2004) relayed that multiracial students expressed encounters of racial ignorance and hostility from professors and teaching assistants. Basu (2010) explored the gender differences in biracial men and women’s experiences with racial identity in college. A biracial participant explained, “One professor . . . liked putting [the biracial students] on the spot . . . she [the professor] said to the whole class . . . what did you guys think of her [the biracial student]?” (Basu, 2010, p. 109). While some multiracial students may face barriers to engaging in academic and social spaces on campus, some multiracial students perceive to hold “a unique vantage point” (Garrod et al., 2014, p. 13) that helps them navigate and engage with several different cultures and understand differing perspectives.

While the aforementioned literature explored how multiracial college students’ experiences with race differ from their monoracial peers, scholars have also explored variations within this student population when racial heritage is accounted for, suggesting that “for multiracial indivi- duals the ‘mix’ matters” (Garrod et al., 2014, p. 3). Renn (2004) acknowledged that multiracial students’ racial heritages may influence their identification with one or more racial identity patterns, including holding a monoracial identity, holding multiple monoracial identities and shifting according to the situation, holding a multiracial identity, holding an extraracial identity, and/or holding a situational identity and identifying differently in different contexts. For example, of the aforementioned five identity patterns, multiracial students with two parents of Color identified with approximately three different identity patterns, while students with Latina/o and White heritage identified, on average, with 1.6 patterns (Renn, 2004). Renn (2004) also explored how, due to their possible appearance as racially ambiguous, biracial students with White heritage are more apt to have their identity and authenticity called into question on campus.

From her research findings, Renn (2004) recommended that scholars explore further the multiracial student population with large-scale quantitative surveys, such as the NSSE, a sugges- tion that is taken up by this study. Exploring variations within the multiracial student population is important in an attempt to acknowledge how, when exploring “multiracialized individuals as a group, one arrives at a collection of people with a wide range of histories, backgrounds, and lived experiences, suggesting great difficulty in identifying or describing multiracial students as belong- ing to a distinct racial identity group” (Brubaker, 2004; Harper, 2016; Osei-Kofi, 2012, p. 251).

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