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"Given ... 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." — Assistant Professor Nicole Stephens

Assistant Professor Nicole Stephens

An unseen disadvantage

The focus on independence at American universities can undermine the academic performance of first-generation college students, Assistant Professor Nicole Stephens finds

3/15/2012 - A college education is traditionally viewed as the great leveler in American society — an engine of social mobility that provides equal opportunities to all students. However, new research finds that students who are the first in their families to attend college — first-generation college students – are at an unseen academic disadvantage in college. The new study from the Kellogg School of Management identifies one important source of the widening social class achievement gap in American colleges and universities.

The study, “Unseen Disadvantage: How American Universities’ Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students,” suggests 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.

“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,” said Nicole Stephens, lead author and assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School.

“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.”

The study distinguishes between the cultural norms and motives of middle-class students with one or more parents who have a four-year college degree, versus first-generation students from working-class backgrounds.

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. “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.”

In a series of four studies, the researchers sought to identify the cultural mismatch, as well as to examine its consequences. In one study, surveys of university administrators revealed that American universities are primarily focused on independence. For example, administrators were presented with six pairs of “institutional expectations” and asked to select the ones that matched their university’s cultural norms. More than two-thirds of administrators characterized their university culture as independent, valuing skills like “learn to express oneself,” “learn to be a leader,” and “learn to work independently” over “learn to work together with others,” “learn to do collaborative research,” and “learn to be a team player.”

Another study explored how students’ motives for attending college are shaped by their social class backgrounds, and how this can impact academic performance. In a survey at the beginning of college, 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. The researchers then followed students for two years and found 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.

Two final experiments created the experience of a cultural match or mismatch for first-generation students and then evaluated their academic performance. Students were exposed to university materials (for example, a university welcome letter) that were framed either in terms of independent cultural norms like developing personal interests and expressing ideas, or interdependent cultural norms like connecting to others and being part of a community. Afterward, students completed an academic task.

When students were exposed to the independent welcome message, reflecting the cultural status quo in today’s American universities, the typical social class performance gap emerged: First-generation students performed worse than middle-class students. However, when the university culture was reframed to include interdependent norms that are common among first-generation students, the social class achievement gap was eliminated: First-generation students performed just as well as their relatively privileged peers.

The research has many implications for how colleges and universities can change the way they approach first-generation students. For example, the study suggests colleges and universities should consider expanding the expectations of college students to include more interdependent norms common among first-generation students, such as working together and connecting with others. For example:
  • Admissions materials and university mission statements could be revised to reflect the importance of interdependent norms 
  • In the classroom, professors could emphasize the importance of collaboration, require more group work, and seek to develop ongoing relationships with their students.
  • Universities could provide students with more structured opportunities that encourage ongoing connections with peers and faculty.

“These findings suggest that social-psychological interventions that more systematically expand the university culture so that they include ideas and practices of interdependence may go a long way toward remedying the unseen disadvantage experienced by first-generation students in American universities today,” the study concludes.

The study was co-authored by Stephanie A. Fryberg of the University of Arizona; Hazel Rose Markus of Stanford University; Camille S. Johnson of the School of Business at San Jose State University; and Rebecca Covarrubias of the University of Arizona. The study will appear in a forthcoming issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP), a publication of the American Psychological Association.