Parents, peers influence Mexican-American college students' behavior, MU study says

Monday, May 7, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:17 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 7, 2012

COLUMBIA — A recent study by an MU professor could provide colleges and universities with insight into how to recruit and retain Mexican-American college students.

Gustavo Carlo, Millsap Professor of Diversity and Multicultural Studies in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, found that parents and peers have a significant influence on the moral development and behaviors of Mexican-American college students.


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Based on the study's findings, Carlo said schools looking to increase the success of those students should find ways to encourage parent involvement in students’ college lives.

The study, "Empathy as a mediator of the relations between parent and peer attachment and prosocial and physically aggressive behaviors in Mexican American college students," was published online by the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in December. It is part of the journal's May print edition.

Scholars have created the term "prosocial" as an antithesis to "antisocial," Carlo said. Types of prosocial behaviors include helping in emergencies, helping when asked and helping without expecting a reward.

For the study, 148 Mexican-American college students from California and Texas took surveys about parent and peer attachment, empathy, prosocial behaviors and physical aggression.

The results showed that strong relationships with parents and peers are connected to less physical aggression and greater levels of empathy, which is associated with prosocial behaviors.

The findings are significant because they show that empathy and peer and parent relationships, which have already been found to be important predictors of behaviors in studies with non-Latino subjects, are important to Mexican-American students, too, Carlo said.

Scholars have said that as people grow up, peers grow more important, which implies that parents grow less important.

However, the study shows that attachment with parents is still a significant predictor of moral development, Carlo said. Peers don't replace parents.

The study's results also showed that peers are more influential than parents for men, but not for women.

That finding is consistent with stereotypes about gender role socialization, Carlo said. Because women are socialized to maintain closer relationships with their families than men are, men might be more susceptible to peer influence, he said.

Carlo said the study is rare because unlike a lot of research on ethnic minorities, it focuses on both positive and negative behaviors, not just negative ones.

Schools should encourage parent involvement

Carlo said the U.S. Latino population is increasing dramatically but the percentage of Latino people who attend colleges or universities full time is still far behind that of other ethnic groups. Latino students also have a higher dropout rate.

Universities and colleges should consider how to recruit Mexican-American parents to help students adjust to their schools, Carlo said, and find a way to help those parents feel empowered and invested in their children's educations.

Some schools have attempted to do that by having parent visit days, Carlo said, though there then becomes a question of how to get the parents to attend.

"We have to be cognizant of the fact that some of them may have never attended a college or university, and so it may be somewhat of an intimidating environment for them to actually come to campus," Carlo said.

In recruiting, rather than just bringing middle or high school students for visits, schools should bring in parents, too, Carlo said.

To retain students, schools could provide a solid support system for Mexican-American students that would help them maintain their cultural identity and contact with their families, Carlo said.

Carlo said European-American parents are more likely to have attended college, while many Latino parents might not have completed high school.

"It's a different culture, and I think we can't assume that all parents would understand what are the benefits of attending college or universities," Carlo said.

Even parents who have a sense of the benefits of college might not understand what the actual experience is like, he said, so schools should keep them informed of what their children are doing.

The bottom line, he said, is that administrators need to make college more familiar for Mexican-American parents and ease fears they have about how college could change their children and their family relationships.

All parents might have those fears, Carlo said, but they're particularly strong for parents who have never gone to college or who attended college in a different country.

Carlo has seen first-hand the concepts illustrated in his study's results.

A Latino man himself, Carlo has worked with many Latino students, and he has had discussions about the importance of family and parents. He has experienced unsuccessful attempts at recruiting Latino students caused by distance from family.

Understanding both sides of social problems

Carlo said two interests led him to work on the study: his interest in how children and infants develop their sense of morality, especially prosocial behaviors, and his interest in the role culture plays in moral development.

Carlo said people are interested in trying to make sense of some of the "terrible things" that affect students, communities and schools, such as violence, drugs and hate crimes.

When he looks at those social issues, he tries to think about the other side, about those who try to defend or save people.

Carlo said he thinks that to have a complete understanding of how to deal with those problems, people need to "understand both sides of the equation."

"What is it that pulls one person into doing terrible things and another person into doing terribly good things?" he said.

Carlo worked on the study with Meredith McGinley of Chatham University and Rachel C. Hayes and Miriam M. Martinez of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. At the time of the study, the three were Carlo’s students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he taught before coming to MU in August 2011.

The data for the study came from a larger project that began several years ago, collecting data from 500 minority college students across the country, Carlo said.

Carlo hasn't heard much feedback on the study yet.

The first line of feedback was simply the fact that it was published, he said; all studies undergo a process of peer review before they run in academic journals, and his was published because other scholars view it as a significant contribution to the field.

He has also received positive feedback at professional conferences, he said.

In Nebraska, Carlo used to present his work in schools, church groups and parent groups and at the Hispanic community center, he said. Here in Columbia, he is still looking to establish those community connections.

He will present other work related to Mexican Americans in June during the Cambio de Colores conference, which will be held at MU and feature presentations from scholars from all over the U.S. about immigration, civil rights, politics, economics, health, education and other topics, he said.

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janice hernandez May 7, 2012 | 6:47 a.m.

In the world today, a young lady who does not have a college education just is not educated. Especially with our busy life who has time but look for High Speed Universities for faster education at your leisure

(Report Comment)
Greg Allen May 7, 2012 | 4:29 p.m.

I'm curious: if 'both sides of the issue' are being looked at, was a sample made of Mexican Americans who didn't go to college? Are there similar factors, or factors on the other side of the coin, that influence their decision to not continue education? Also, if family ties help a student get to college, what does this study have to say about why more Mexican Americans don't finish college? Or is that just another question that comes out of this that needs further research?

Not to be picky or negative, but "parents and peers have a significant influence on the moral development and behaviors of ... college students" has been pretty common knowledge across time and cultures. Had a lot to do with raising my daughter.

(Report Comment)
Daniel Harlan May 7, 2012 | 5:05 p.m.

Parents and peers have significant influence on moral development? REALLY? I'm shocked. How long did it take to figure that out?

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