Arriving at college for the first time is a thrilling experience. You haul your suitcases out of the family minivan or the Amtrak train or the taxi from the airport. You fill your cramped dorm room with coffee mugs, posters, and wretchedly expensive textbooks.

Amidst this flurry, if you were surveyed on your motivation for going to college, you would probably fall into one of two groups. One, if your family has a history of going to college—so-called “continuing-generation” students—you are likely to write that you are there in order to come into your own: college is your chance to stand on your own two feet, find yourself, and develop a direction for your life. Or two, if you are the first one from your family to attend—a “first-generation” student—you are likely to write that you came in order to give back: you would like to return to your hometown as a doctor, maybe, or get a good job so you can provide for your family or community.

As it turns out, college administrators typically have only one of these options in mind. And if you are in the other group, you have a harder time in college, according to new research by Nicole Stephens, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management.

College in America
The idea of college in the United States is inextricably entwined with the American dream of social mobility. In recent decades, however, sociologists have argued that American colleges, despite trumpeting the socioeconomic diversity of their student bodies, are culturally homogeneous: they are run according to the assumptions and values of the middle class. These values include a focus on self-motivation, self-determination, and developing one’s own ideas and opinions—values that go along with the financial resources and freedom of people in the middle class.

“Most mainstream institutions in the U.S. reflect norms of independence because the U.S. was founded on individualism,” Stephens says. “It’s normal that institutions within our society would reflect those expectations. Politics, health care, the law—everything reflects the independent focus.” The value system more prevalent in the working class is a little different, though, centering on “interdependence”—being sensitive to the needs of others, working well within a group, and knowing your place in a hierarchy, which are useful behaviors when financial instability threatens to turn a family’s life upside down.

First-generation university students tend to get lower grades than continuing-generation students, even when they enter college with the same SAT scores. Stephens and colleagues wondered whether the stress of a cultural environment dominated by unfamiliar class values, in which faculty and other students expect them to value independence over interdependence, was contributing to the achievement gap between first- and continuing-generation students. Middle-class students would know the rules of the game, but working class students might struggle.

College is inextricably entwined with the American dream of social mobility.

The Welcome Letter
The team designed a series of studies to see if this proposed cultural mismatch indeed existed, what effect it had on students’ grades, and whether the effect could be triggered by something as simple as a college welcome letter. First, they verified that college administrators thought of their institutions as places for students to become independent. Indeed, when asked about the most important skills their students should develop in college, around three-fourths of surveyed administrators at top-tier institutions favored terms like “learn to express oneself,” “learn to be a leader,” and “learn to do independent research,” over interdependent terms like “learn to work together with others” and “learn to listen to others.” At second-tier institutions, independence was favored by a substantial, though smaller, proportion of administrators.

Then, the researchers asked 245 first-generation freshmen and 1,179 continuing-generation freshmen at a top-tier university about their goals for college and then tracked their grades through their first two years. They found that first-generation students stated interdependent goals twice as frequently as continuing-generation students, and that students who emphasized interdependent goals attained lower grades than students who emphasized independent goals, even when factors like race and SAT score were factored in. Furthermore, these differences in students’ motives explained a good portion of the achievement gap between first-generation and continuing-generation students.

To establish cause and effect, Stephens and her colleagues tested experimentally whether students who experienced a cultural mismatch did worse on tasks than students who did not. To this end, the researchers had students read a college welcome letter seeded with either independent or interdependent phrases. For example, the independent version of the letter said “[Your university] has a tradition of independence: of bold students who assert their own ideas, thoughts, and opinions,” whereas the interdependent letter said “[Your university] has a tradition of learning through community—bridging academic study with public service.” When first-generation students read the independent letter, they did worse on both a verbal task (solving as many anagrams as possible) and a visual task (solving as many tangram puzzles as possible) than continuing-generation students who read the same letter. When first-generation students read the interdependent letter, however, the performance gap between the two groups disappeared. Introducing norms of interdependence did not hurt continuing-generation students’ performance, but it improved the scores of first-generation students.

A Simple Change, A Big Difference
Stephens points out that university culture is already so similar to what continuing-generation students experienced growing up that introducing a few elements of interdependence will not affect them negatively. But it might well help first-generation students feel more at home and help close the achievement gap. “We can change the way we communicate with students and how students are asked to interact with others in the classroom so that interdependence can be incorporated,” Stephens says. Even just changing the way undergraduate research is described—from an independent project to a collaboration with a faculty member—could keep first-generation students from experiencing a cultural mismatch and its accompanying performance slump.

By adjusting the way universities present themselves, administrators and faculty might not only help first-generation students fulfill their potential but also produce more well-rounded graduates in general. It is possible that being encouraged to be part of a community—regardless of whether your parents went to college—could have other positive effects. Universities might, in adjusting their message, help make the American dream a little less about sheer individualism and a little more about working together.

Editor’s note: Stephens' paper “Unseen Disadvantage: How American Universities’ Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-generation College Students” was awarded the 2013 Stanley Reiter Best Paper Award, an honor bestowed by Kellogg School faculty upon a research paper judged to be the “best” of those published between 2009 and 2012.


Related reading on Kellogg Insight

Matriculation Matters: Refining the college admissions guessing game

“Acting White,” or Just Acting Rationally? Social pressures to fit in can explain the black-white educational achievement gap

Stacking the Deck Against Racism: A psychological explanation for impartiality