Unseen Disadvantage: The American University Culture of Independence Undermines First-Generation College Students

Monday, February 11, 2013

Nicole Stephens

Professor of Psychology
Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

Social class has been understudied in psychology, in part, because the very idea of social hierarchy conflicts with foundational American ideals (e.g., equality among individuals). Nevertheless, social class powerfully impacts individuals’ life outcomes. The current research investigates the influence of students’ social class background on the opportunity to succeed in college. Specifically, it reveals that the culture of American universities, which includes a focus on independent cultural norms, is an important source of institutional bias that contributes to the social class performance gap. With a focus on students from families who are not college-educated—first-generation college students—a series of surveys and experiments reveal that these students often underperform because universities emphasize middle-class norms of independence (e.g., develop your self, pave your own path) that do not match with the relatively interdependent norms that first-generation students bring with them to college (e.g., contribute to community, connect to others). This cultural mismatch undermines first-generation students’ sense of comfort and academic performance in university settings. 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.

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