The key to the one-time intervention's success was raising students' awareness of the ways that social class shapes the college experience, according to Northwestern psychological scientist Nicole Stephens.
"First-generation students earn lower grades, are at greater risk of dropping out and feel a greater sense of ‘not belonging' when they transition to college, yet programs designed to help them usually leave out discussions of students' social class backgrounds," says Stephens, associate professor in Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.
In collaboration with co-authors MarYam Hamedani of Stanford University and Mesmin Destin of Northwestern University, Stephens conducted a "difference-education intervention" at the beginning of the academic year. The intervention included deliberate but subtle discussions of the ways in which students' social class backgrounds influenced their college experience.
Third- and fourth-year undergraduates from a wide variety of family backgrounds related personal stories about their own college adjustment to a group of incoming freshmen, some first-generation, some not. As part of the difference-education intervention, student panelists discussed obstacles to and strategies for college success that they linked to their different social class backgrounds.
In the "standard intervention," on the other hand, they discussed the same issues without talking about their family backgrounds. A panelist in the standard intervention also talked about the difficulty of choosing classes and of the need to rely on professors, mentors, and other campus resources but did not mention her social class background.
The effort to embrace instead of erase discussions of social class difference had significant long-term consequences. The difference-education intervention not only closed the social-class academic achievement gap by 63 percent, it also conferred psychological benefits.
At the end of the academic year, first-generation students reported better outcomes on psychological well-being, social fit, perspective taking, and appreciation of diversity than their peers in the standard intervention. They also had higher grade point averages and reported an increased tendency to take advantage of campus resources, including meeting with professors outside of class and getting extra tutoring.
"Students whose parents have earned a degree come to college with lots of know-how and cultural capital that helps them navigate college's often unspoken rules," Stephens says. "Talking about social class gives first-generation students a framework to understand how their own backgrounds matter in college, what unique obstacles they may face and see that people like them can be successful."
All this should be good news to President Barack Obama and college and university presidents who have been discussing how to get more capable low-income students successfully through college.
"Our findings put some of the responsibility back on colleges and universities and ask them to rethink the kinds of programs and messages they develop in their efforts to create an inclusive environment for first-generation students," adds Stephens.
The researchers also found benefits from the difference-education intervention for continuing-generation students. "They, too, scored higher on measures for well-being, engagement and social fit," said Stephens. "That's more icing on the cake."
The APS journal Psychological Science is the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology. For a copy of the article "Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap: A Difference-Education Intervention Improves First-Generation Students' Academic Performance and All Students' College Transition" and access to other Psychological Science research findings, please contact Anna Mikulak at 202-293-9300 oramikulak@psychologicalscience.
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