Odelet Nance


This article builds on a previous qualitative study examining the role of religion in the lives of five African-American college students at a Predominately White Institution (PWI). Through a constructivist lens, the stories of first-year students revealed how their church informed their college experiences. This article describes how churches provided support for students through the theoretical frameworks illustrated by Alexander Astin, Jacqueline Mattis, and Robert Jagers. Churches and Predominately White Institutions are encouraged to form partnerships to strengthen and enhance support systems for African-American college students.

Research has shown that having an effective support system affects social and academic integration and, in turn, a student’s decision on whether to persist to graduation (Tinto, 1975). Although greater access to post-secondary education exists than ever before, retention of African-Americans remains especially low. According to one study, “the nationwide college graduation rate for Black students stands at an appallingly low rate of 42%. This figure is 20 percentage points below the 62% rate for White students” (“Black Student Graduation Rates,” 2004, p. 88). Multiple studies suggest that many factors—financial, social, cultural, psychological, circumstantial, personal—combine in myriad ways to derail students from their educational tracks (Ervin, 2001; Neville, Heppner, & Wang, 1997). One fact seems clear, however; a strong social support system greatly enhances a student’s chances of success.

Religion is an important source of social support for African-American students (Markstrom, 1999), and an important coping resource. In fact, church attendance and prayer play an essential role in the reduction of stress (Ellison, 1991). Research findings suggest that those students who attend religious services have a more positive college experience that may lead to better retention (Zern, 1997). Quantitative studies indicate that religious involvement helps to maximize a student’s potential to excel academically (Zern, 1997, 1989). Steward and Jo (1998) found that students who self-identified as religious used their spirituality as a means of coping in college settings, and religious students tend to be better adjusted and have higher academic performance. Rather than focusing on explanations for African-American students’ under-representation and under-achievement at PWIs, which much past research has covered, this article will examine how the affiliation with the Christian church influences the college experience and acts as a social network for five African-American students at a large, urban, public institution.