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Unseen disadvantage: How American universities' focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


American universities are increasingly opening their doors to first-generation college students, students whose parents do not have a 4-year degree. Once admitted, however, these students tend to struggle academically compared to continuing-generation students, students who have at least one parent with a four-year degree. We propose a cultural mismatch theory that identifies one important source of this social class achievement gap. Four studies test the hypothesis that first-generation students underperform because the interdependent norms from their mostly working-class backgrounds constitute a mismatch with the middle-class independent norms prevalent in universities. First, to assess university cultural norms, surveys of university administrators revealed that American universities focus primarily on norms of independence. Second, to identify the hypothesized cultural mismatch, a longitudinal survey revealed that universities' focus on independence does not match first-generation students' relatively interdependent motives for attending college, and further, that this cultural mismatch is associated with lower grades. Finally, two experiments at both private and public universities created a match or mismatch for first-generation students and examined the performance consequences. Together these studies revealed that representing the university culture in terms of independence (i.e., paving one's own paths) rendered academic tasks difficult and thereby undermined first-generation students' performance. Conversely, representing the university culture in terms of interdependence (i.e., being part of a community) reduced this sense of difficulty and eliminated the performance gap without adverse consequences for continuing-generation students. These studies address the urgent need to recognize cultural obstacles that contribute to the social class achievement gap and to develop interventions to address them.




Nicole Stephens, Stephanie Fryberg, Camille Johnson, Rebecca Covarrubias

Date Published



Stephens, Nicole, Stephanie Fryberg, Camille Johnson, and Rebecca Covarrubias. 2012. Unseen disadvantage: How American universities' focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 102(6): 1178-1197.


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