Part I of this series on first-generation students looked at the value of talking about social class in reducing the achievement gap compared to continuing-generation students.
This week’s post will look at how the cultural fit between first-generation students and colleges and universities can impact student success.
“Unseen Disadvantage: How American Universities’ Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students,” published in 2012 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, concluded:
“That the seemingly positive middle-and upper-class cultural norms that pervade traditional American universities — norms that emphasize independent values such as ‘do your own thing,’ ‘pave your own path,’ and ‘express yourself’ — can undermine the academic performance of first-generation students.”
Nicole Stephens, lead author and assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, states that:
“Today one in six students at four-year American universities are first-generation students, but our research suggests that these students may face a ‘cultural mismatch’ when they head to college and that universities may inadvertently play a role in reproducing the very social inequalities that they hope to alleviate. Our research seeks to recognize the obstacles that contribute to the social class achievement gap and to lay the groundwork for developing strategies to address the problem.”
Stephens continued: For middle-class students, college is “the ultimate symbol of independence” and also allows students to “distinguish themselves from their parents and realize their individual potential.” By contrast, students from working-class backgrounds are likely to have been socialized with different “rules of the game” —rules that emphasize interdependence with others (i.e., being part of a community).
“Many students from working-class families are influenced by limited financial resources and lack an economic safety net, and thus must rely on family and friends for support. Thus, these students’ expectations for college center around interdependent motives such as working together, connecting to others, and giving back,” said Stephens.
Stephens also added, “Given the largely independent college culture and the ways in which students’ social class backgrounds shape their motives for attending college, we questioned whether universities provide students from these different backgrounds with an equal chance of success.”
From a series of four studies that sought to identify the cultural mismatch and examine its consequences, the authors concluded that their research has many implications for how colleges and universities can change the way they approach first-generation students.
For example, one of the four studies compared the social class performance gap with first generation students who were exposed to “independent welcome” messages compared to those exposed to welcome messages where the “university culture was reframed to include interdependent norms that are common among first-generation students”.
The social class performance gap was eliminated when the students were exposed to the interdependent messages.
Looking at another study where a survey was administered to beginning students, “first-generation students were less likely to endorse independent motives for attending, but more likely to endorse interdependent motives — for example, helping out family and being a role model — compared to middle-class students.”
After following the students for two years, the researchers concluded that “students’ motives upon entering college predicted their grades during the first and second year. Specifically, independent motives for attending college (a cultural match with the university culture) predicted higher grades, whereas interdependent motives (a cultural mismatch with the university culture) predicted lower grades.”
The authors do not suggest that a culture of interdependence replace the common culture of independence at colleges and universities, but instead as articulated by co-author Hazel Markus, a Stanford Psychologist, “Universities can tweak their cultures so they include a focus on interdependence as well as independence”, articulating the value of not only independent skills such as “learn to express oneself,” “learn to be a leader,” and “learn to work independently”, but also interdependent skills like “learn to work together with others,” “learn to do collaborative research,” and “learn to be a team player.”
The research outlined in Parts I and II provides evidence that colleges and universities that wish to serve first-generation students well, should target specific support services to improve the critically-important transition from high school to college.
Ultimately these strategies should increase the success of first-generation students, as measured quantitatively by standard metrics such as rates of retention, persistence, graduation and post-college success, not to mention important qualitative metrics, such as reduced stress, better adjustment to college life, and more academic and social engagement.