Shine a light on it: Talking about class differences with first-gen students helps them succeed

lighthouse-581082_1280By Clifton B. Parker, Stanford

Talking about class differences can help close the collegiate achievement gap between first- and continuing-generation students, according to Stanford research.

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 study, “Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap,” 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,” said MarYam Hamedani, a co-author on the paper, psychologist and associate director of Stanford’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 added.

While many colleges and universities have aggressively recruited more first-generation students, she said, 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.

Talking about differences

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.”

Personal stories

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 wrote, “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 said. “They were less stressed, felt like they fit in socially, and were more connected to their families, friends and school.”

Traditional ‘bridge’ programs

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

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

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