Talking about social class eases achievement gap: Implications for mentoring

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 12.50.58 PMPosted by Clifton B. Parker-Stanford

New research finds that talking about social class helps first-generation college students reduce the social-class achievement gap by as much as 63 percent.

Using a “difference-education” approach, these students had higher grade-point averages and took better advantage of college resources than peers who didn’t participate in the discussion.

Research has shown that first-generation college students—those who do not have a parent with a college degree—often lag behind other students in grades and graduation rates. They also often struggle socially, finding it hard to fit in and sometimes feeling like they don’t belong in college.

But the new study offers a new approach to help them advance in college: discuss class differences rather than ignore them.

“The research showed that when incoming first-generation students saw and heard stories from junior and senior students with different social-class backgrounds tell stories about their struggles and successes in college, they gained a framework to understand how their backgrounds shaped their own experiences and how to see this as an asset,” says MarYam Hamedani, a coauthor of the paper, psychologist, and associate director of Stanford University’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.

Continuing-generation students—those with at least one parent with a four-year college degree—don’t experience similar gaps in opportunity and achievement. Coming from families with more experience with the world of higher education helps them navigate college and the norms, rules, and expectations that are often implicit or unspoken, Hamedani adds.

While many colleges and universities have aggressively recruited more first-generation students, she says, the schools have not yet figured out how to get these students through college successfully. This has created “a paradox” that fuels, rather than mitigates, the growing inequality gap in society.


In their study, which took place at a private Midwestern university, the researchers invited first-generation and continuing-generation students at the beginning of the school year to attend a one-hour program designed to help them transition to college.

Half of the students attended a “difference-education” program while the other half attended a “standard” program. They were not aware of the separate programs or their content.

In both settings, the freshman students listened to a diverse panel of junior and senior students talk about their transition to college, challenges they faced, and how they found success. In the difference-education program, however, panelists’ stories also included a subtle discussion of how their social-class backgrounds mattered in college. The panels included both first-generation and continuing-generation students.

For example, panelists in the difference-education group were asked, “Can you provide an example of an obstacle that you faced when you came to (university name) and how you resolved it?”

One first-generation panelist responded, “Because my parents didn’t go to college, they weren’t able to provide me the advice I needed. So it was sometimes hard to figure out which classes to take … I learned I needed to rely on my adviser more than other students.”

In the standard program, however, the panelists did not reveal their social class. Their stories consisted of a general discussion about college that was not linked to their social-class backgrounds.

For instance, one panelist was asked, “What do you do to be successful in your classes?” He answered, “Go to class and pay attention. If you don’t understand something or have a hard time with the material, meet with your teaching assistant or professor during office hours.”


At the end of the academic year, the researchers found that the first-generation students in the difference-education intervention had higher year-end grades than those in the standard group (3.4 vs. 3.16 average GPAs), and took greater advantage of academic resources like mentoring from professors (1.89 vs. 1.45 times that resources were sought out).

For continuing-generation students in the difference-education group, they posted 3.51 GPAs on average and sought resources 1.8 times over the course of the school year. In the standard model, those numbers were 3.46 and 2.18, respectively.

The researchers write, “Using the personal stories of senior college students, a one-hour difference-education intervention at the beginning of college reduced the social-class achievement gap among first-generation and continuing-generation college students by 63 percent at the end of the first year and also improved first-generation students’ college transition on numerous psychosocial outcomes (e.g. psychological adjustment and academic and social engagement).”

An added bonus was that both first- and continuing-generation students who participated in the difference-education program gained a deeper understanding of how students’ diverse backgrounds and perspectives mattered in college than did their peers in the standard program, according to the study.

Continuing-generation students in the difference-education program also experienced a smoother transition to college compared with their peers in the standard program.

“Both first and continuing-generation students experienced a more positive college transition,” Hamedani says. “They were less stressed, felt like they fit in socially, and were more connected to their families, friends, and school.”


Hamedani says the traditional approach in higher education is to help first-generation students with “bridge” programs that teach academic tips, tools, and strategies, such as how to choose a major or study for exams. While providing academic resources can help, they are not sufficient—students also need psychological resources to support them on their path to success.

“In American society,” she says, “we try not to talk about our class differences. We found, however, that college students can learn a lot about themselves and one another when they do so. Engaging students about differences, when done in the right way, can be extremely beneficial and empowering.”

Hamedani notes, “Higher education institutions have a responsibility to support and prepare students for success in our increasingly diverse and multicultural society.”

Coauthors on the research paper included management professor Nicole Stephens and psychology professor Mesmin Destin, both from Northwestern University.

Source: Stanford University