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Academic Identification: From One-Size-Fits-All to Something That Really Fits

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Does that one-size-fits-all t-shirt really fit you? No! As suggested by Hope, Chavous, Jagers, and Sellers in a 2013 article in the American Educational Research Journal, a one-size-fits-all approach to education does not “fit” all our students. These researchers found that there are benefits and challenges for Black students when connecting self-esteem and achievement that vary within this population.

Researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan conducted a quantitatively descriptive, longitudinal study to explore patterns of self-esteem and achievement in Black college students. Taking into consideration that people vary but often cluster around characteristics, they used a person-oriented approach to extend the individual differences to groups. Moreover, the research reconciles the debate in research about Black students and the interplay between their personal identity and role as a student, called academic identification; claiming that instead of strong academic identification, racial identity may create the foundation for adjustment.

To address this possibility, researchers sampled 324 African-American freshman college students from three large, public universities. They collected information on students at the beginning of their freshman year, Time 1, and the end of their freshman year, Time 2.  Results revealed four academic identification and dis-identification profiles, based on participants’ self-esteem scores and GPAs. These profiles are High Self-Esteem/High Achiever, Low Self-Esteem/Low Achiever, High Self-Esteem/Low Achiever, and Low Self-Esteem/High Achiever.  For students with high self-esteem and high achievement, and students with high self-esteem and low achievement, their self-esteem was less dependent on academic achievement. Students with low self-esteem and low achievement, and students with low self-esteem and high achievement reported higher anxiety, depressive symptoms, and perceived stress. Within these profiles, the students placed a different emphasis on their racial identity, with the strongest academic identification profiles demonstrating the strongest racial identification. 

These findings suggest that a strong and positive sense of racial identity can promote psychological well-being. Accordingly, colleges and schools should promote programs that allow students to celebrate their ethnicity and move towards multicultural pedagogy. In a broader sense, this research suggests that it is necessary to consider the variation in how Black students make connections between their identity and academic performance. For some, a strong academic identification can lead to positive psychological outcomes, but for other students, it can be detrimental to their mental health. Ultimately, the study suggests that there is heterogeneity in Black students and it should be taken into consideration in theory and institutional practice. Just as that one-size-fits-all shirt does not fit for all, this research suggests that students need various approaches based on their differences.

By Ashley Lawson, Pre-Service Teacher, NC State


Hope, E. C., Chavous, T. M., Jagers, R. J., & Sellers, R. M. (2013). Connecting self-esteem and achievement: Diversity in academic identification and dis-identification patterns among black college students. American Educational Research Journal, 1122–1151, doi: 10.3102/0002831213500333