This article is a follow-up to Supporting Black British university students, part one: understanding students’ experiences with peers and academic staff, published in the September issue of University and College Counselling.1 In the previous article, we described how, despite increases in participation rates, black university students are much less likely than their white peers to earn high grades and more likely to drop out prior to graduation.2,3

We also presented research indicating that black students continue to perform below the level of white students even after controlling for factors such as academic preparation and socioeconomic status.4,5 This research, we asserted, suggests there are aspects of the university experience itself that contribute to the underachievement and attrition of black  university students. In the first article, we  identified the sociocultural challenges faced  by black students at British universities, which included dealing with stereotyping, structural  biases, and overt racism, and described how involvement in student unions and with culturally sensitive and supportive academic staff can mitigate these obstacles faced by black students. Most importantly, we provided suggestions for university counsellors and support staff to support black students by (1) facilitating opportunities and connections with student unions and supportive academic staff, and (2) by providing advocacy-based interventions consistent with critical race theory and othermothering approaches.6,7 

In this follow-up article, we review research that has examined another factor involved in black student success that is important for university counsellors and support staff to consider: student relationships with their family members. We begin by providing an overview of research conducted in the UK and US that has explored the impact of families on black university student academic achievement and persistence. We conclude by providing implications of this work for university counsellors and support staff, which include recognising the needs and strengths of students from collectivist cultural orientations, and the importance of facilitating intrinsic motivation in students.

Research on black university students’ relationships with their families

Much of the understanding regarding the role of families in university student success comes from Tinto’s (1993) theory of integration, which has long been regarded as the seminal theory of university student retention.8 Tinto theorised that university students need to break away from family members so that they can become fully integrated into the academic and social realms of the university. Failure to break away from relationships at home successfully, according to Tinto, leads to a lack of academic and social integration and results in student attrition.

Recent research in the US, however, has questioned Tinto’s assertion that black students need to break away from family members to integrate into the university. Several authors have asserted that Tinto’s model, which was originally designed to understand developmental life-course progression within a person’s own cultures (that is, from childhood to adulthood), is not accurate when describing the experiences of black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) students, whose cultural norms may differ from the Eurocentric cultures at most Western universities.8,9 Additionally, research with black students in the US has indicated that strong relationships with family members was a positive predictor of black student success.10,11 These results are consistent with research in the UK that has found that black undergraduate students often rely on support from family members because they feel reluctant to talk about their issues with white academic staff.3,4

Guiffrida, in a qualitative study with African-American students at a US university, noted that many of the high-achieving students described their families as supportive of their academic success.12 More importantly, findings from the study uncovered the ways in which African-American family members supported their students. These included encouraging students to focus primarily on their studies rather than on supporting their families, and providing encouragement and support to students when they experienced social and academic difficulties at university. Meanwhile, the low-achieving African-American students in the study tended to mention their families when describing factors that contributed to their academic difficulties. Many of the low-achieving students said their families made them feel guilty for being at university because it was costly to the family and distracted students from serving head of household duties at home. Furthermore, these students also described their parents as being critical of the university environment and sensitive to changes they noticed in their children as a result of their transitions to university. Guiffrida concluded that university staff should encourage students to strengthen relationships with family members who provide emotional, academic, and financial support and who encourage their children to change and grow as part of their university experience, while also noting the risk to students from families who fail to provide this support.

While few studies have investigated the influence of black-British families on university success, research in the UK has consistently found that black-British parents tend to value education highly and strongly encourage their children to attend university.13–15 This finding suggests that black parents are likely to provide the type of strong support to their children that is consistent with the families of high-achieving African-American students in the US. However, research with blackBritish students suggests one potential limitation of black parents’ strong emphasis on education. Results of several studies in the UK indicate that black families can push their children to study fields that are socially and economically valued, such as medicine, law, engineering, and other science and technology-related fields, even if their children show little interest in or aptitude for these fields.16–18 In fact, research indicates BAME students are actually overrepresented in the previously mentioned socially and economically desirable fields and underrepresented in fields related to the social sciences and education.3

Senior has cautioned that black parents who strongly encourage their children to study fields which they have little interest in or aptitude for can contribute to students developing extrinsic forms of motivation toward learning, which is when students engage in learning primarily to receive a reward (praise, pay, prestige) or to avoid punishment.19 This is in contrast to being intrinsically motivated towards learning, which is when students engage in learning because the subject is of interest to them, the learning activities allow them to test and challenge themselves, and the learning experiences provide meaningful connections with others.20 According to self-determination theory (SDT), which is the most researched, referenced and validated theory of human motivation, students motivated largely by intrinsic motivation tend to be more successful in school and enjoy their learning experiences more than students who are motivated by extrinsic motivation.21

Importantly, SDT recognises that parents, teachers and other educational professionals can actually affect student motivational orientation towards learning. Educators, counsellors and parents who institute controlling behaviours with students, such as strictly monitoring them, imposing their own goals on students, and punishing them for not meeting these imposed goals, can undermine students’ intrinsic motivation toward learning.21 Conversely, SDT research also demonstrates that educators, counsellors and parents can increase student intrinsic motivation towards learning by providing autonomy-supportive conditions, which include encouraging students to study areas of interest to them, allowing them the autonomy to make their own decisions, providing rationales for the advice they provide, and freedom to decide whether to follow their advice.

While the importance of intrinsic motivation to student success has been supported by decades of SDT research, recent research suggests relationships between motivation and university success may be more complex for black students.20 Guiffrida, Lynch, Wall and Abel, using survey research with 2,520 African-American university students in the US, found that black students who were motivated to attend college to give back to their home communities had stronger intentions to persist than white students who expressed the same motivation for attending university.22 Guiffrida et al theorised that this difference may be due, in part, to differences in cultural orientation.23 The authors hypothesised that students from more collectivist cultures, which tend to value interdependence and familial and societal goals over individual goals, may derive powerful motivation to succeed at college from the desire to give back to their families or home communities.23 This is opposed to students from more individualist cultures, who may be motivated to attend college to obtain personal goals over fulfilling the goals and needs of the family. Given that research suggests that most Western cultures tend to be more individualistic and that many non-Western cultures, including African and Caribbean, tend to be more collectivist, these results indicate the need for university counsellors and support staff to recognise student cultural orientation when designing intervention and support strategies with black students.24

Implications for university counsellors and support staff

Research exploring the role of families in university student success has important implications for the work of university counsellors and support staff. University counsellors and support staff must recognise that many black students who espouse collectivist cultural orientations may feel a need to maintain close relationships with family members while at university and include the needs of the family in their decision-making processes. Counsellors and support staff cannot, therefore, implement interventions based purely on individualist notions of autonomy and integration with students from collectivist orientations. According to Guiffrida et al, individualist approaches that ignore the needs of the family, ‘…may not only be met with resistance by students and families, but could potentially be harmful to students by robbing them of strong cultural support networks at home.’ 23 Rather, university counsellors and support staff who are culturally sensitive to the needs of students from collectivist cultures should implement systemic approaches that recognise and promote connections with family members who can provide students with cultural nourishment, strategies for dealing with oppression, and encouragement to succeed.

University counsellors and support staff can also promote black student success by providing orientation programmes that help black students and their families understand and navigate the individualist culture inherent at most British universities. This includes helping students and their families to prioritise academic success, while helping them learn to balance head of household duties at home. University counsellors and support staff can also help students and their families understand the social and intellectual changes and challenges students will encounter while at university and assist them in navigating potentially distressing interactions at home when these changes become noticeable. Comprehensive career and employability advice is also needed to help students identify areas of study that are intrinsically interesting and to connect these interests to potential careers that are both enjoyable to students and acceptable to family members. Finally, university counsellors can provide counselling interventions that are autonomy-supportive, such as those aligned with humanistic traditions, that foster student intrinsic motivation toward learning.

Summary and conclusions

In this follow-up article exploring the experiences of black British university students, we reviewed research that has examined the role of black students’ families to their academic success. Research conducted with black university students from the UK and US suggests that strong relationships with family members can assist in mitigating the sociocultural challenges students face. Furthermore, research suggests that these relationships may be particularly salient to the success of black British students whose families value university education and strongly encourage them to attend. Research also suggests that families can help foster intrinsic motivation, a central ingredient to academic success, by encouraging students to study in fields that are interesting to them rather than encouraging them to select a career based purely on potential salaries and prestige of the profession.

University counsellors and support staff must recognise the need for students from collectivist cultures to maintain close relationships with family members and help students consider the needs of their families in their decision-making. University counsellors and support staff can also consider the needs of family members when supporting students as they negotiate and adapt to the Eurocentric cultures of the university, while also helping university academic staff adapt their processes to meet the needs of students from collectivist cultural backgrounds. Finally, counsellors and staff can facilitate student intrinsic motivation by providing comprehensive career and employability advice that allows students to identify careers that are both intrinsically rewarding while also meeting the  needs of their families. 

Dr Douglas Guiffrida is Professor of Counselling and Human Development at the University of Rochester, USA. He is the author of the award-winning book, Constructive clinical supervision in counseling and psychotherapy (Routledge, 2015).

Oliver Boxell is a graduate student at the University of Rochester.

Stephon Hamell is a graduate student at the University of Rochester.

Ivonne Ponicsan is a graduate student at  the University of Rochester.

Rotimi Akinsete is Director, University Centre for Wellbeing, University of Surrey.

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