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Stress of college norms can put first-generation students at academic disadvantage

Stress of college norms can put first-generation students at academic disadvantage

Culture shock

Stress of college norms can put first-generation students at academic disadvantage, Kellogg professor finds


12/10/2012 - The college experience has long been a rite of passage for students in the United States — a time to live and learn independently.

But new research by Kellogg faculty finds that for many first-generation college students, traditional university culture may actually have negative implications for their academic achievement and personal performance.

The study, “A Cultural Mismatch: Independent Cultural Norms Produce Greater Increases In Cortisol and More Negative Emotions Among First-Generation College Students,” builds on a previous study that found the cultural norms pervasive in traditional American universities — norms that emphasize independent values such as “do your own thing” and “express yourself” — can undermine the academic performance of first-generation students, who are more likely to have been socialized to value interdependence and reliance on community.

A stressful transition
Co-authored by Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations Nicole Stephens, Visiting Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations Sarah Townsend, and Stanford University colleagues Hazel Markus and L. Taylor Phillips, this new research further explores how the cultural mismatch can affect both psychological and physiological functioning.

“We know that first-generation college students often experience significant challenges adjusting to universities, and this research sought to identify causes beyond the relative lack of economic or academic resources,” said Stephens. “What we found is that the burden first-generation students face in trying to adapt to typical university norms imparts such a level of stress that it can alter biological functioning and negatively affect academic performance.”

Independence and interdependence
The researchers studied first-year college students, both first-generation and continuing-generation. Students performed academic tasks in a lab setting while instruments measured their physiological responses.

In the study, students were provided with alleged welcome letters from their university in which the academic culture and student experience was described in terms of either independent or interdependent language. The students were then asked to deliver a short speech identifying their individual college goals.

As predicted, after exposure to the independent framing of the college culture, first-generation students displayed higher increases in cortisol (an indicator of stress) and more negative emotions than continuing-generation students. In contrast, the interdependent framing of the college culture eliminated this stress and emotion gap between first- and continuing-generation students.

A healthy balance
“These results suggest that a culturally-mismatched environment between independent and interdependent cultural norms can burden first-generation students with additional, largely invisible layers of adversity,” said Stephens. “Specifically, we saw that first-generation students are often perplexed by typical university requirements to ‘pave their own path,’ which creates a high level of frustration and anxiety.”

This study offers two practical suggestions for American universities that seek to level the playing field and provide all students equal opportunity for success. “First, universities may need to explicitly teach students independent cultural norms, and second, they may need to expand their ideas and practices to include more interdependent cultural norms,” added Stephens.

The study appears in the September issue of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.