College students come from vastly different backgrounds, geographically but also culturally. They often have little in common beyond an aptitude for academic work.

For first-generation students—those whose parents did not earn a four-year college degree—in particular, college can seem like a foreign culture. There are a variety of rules and norms, largely unspoken, that these students have no way of understanding, including seemingly “obvious” things like how to secure internships and the benefits of seeking help from professors during office hours.

While continuing-generation students—those with at least one parent who did earn a four-year degree—usually develop the savvy to succeed in this culture through interactions with their college-educated friends and family, first-generation students often do not. Does social-class background shape students’ experience? And if so, what tools can universities offer incoming students that will help them navigate college life?

New research by Nicole Stephens, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University addresses these questions. Other things being equal, the study finds, first-generation students tend to perform less well academically than continuing-education students—by a gap of about one-third of a grade point. But, remarkably, a brief intervention at the beginning of students’ college career can eliminate this performance gap.

The First-Generation Dilemma
The study builds on previous research by Stephens that analyzed how values affect the performance of first-generation students relative to continuing-generation students. While the former prize interdependence and view higher education as a collaborative culture, continuing-generation students think of it as a place to strike out on their own and cultivate their own identity. Stephens and her colleagues found that tweaking the welcome letter sent to incoming students to incorporate language affirming the school’s commitment to collaboration closed the performance gap between continuing- and first-generation students on a series of problem-solving tests.

That research and the current work shed light on the hidden challenges and frustrations that first-generation students encounter all the time. Those challenges put them at risk of underperforming and dropping out, which is an “increasingly important problem that many colleges and universities are grappling with,” says Stephens. “Most institutions don’t know how to improve first-generation students’ opportunity to succeed.”

Many colleges and universities do, of course, offer transitional programs designed to give incoming freshmen strategies for success in the foreign culture of higher education. These programs are typically based on the assumption that “if we provide students with more academic skills, and give them more tutoring, that’s the key to helping them be successful,” Stephens said. “The idea is that what schools need to do is just equip them with the right skills. But we know from research in social psychology that there are a lot of important cultural factors that can have a huge impact on whether students succeed, above and beyond whether they have the right skills.”

Stories of Social Class
In the current study, Stephens and her colleagues—MarYam G. Hamedani of Stanford University and Mesmin Destin at Northwestern University—designed an intervention for first-year students that challenged a skill-based approach. It involved college seniors telling stories about their college experiences that subtly referenced how their backgrounds affected their experience—thus giving freshmen a framework for understanding how social class matters. The authors call this a “difference education” intervention.

Seniors were asked, for example, to share an obstacle they faced in college and how they overcame it. One first-generation senior responded: “Because my parents didn’t go to college, they weren’t always able to provide me the advice I needed. So, it was sometimes hard to figure out which classes to take and what I wanted to do in the future. But there are other people who can provide that advice, and I learned that I needed to rely on my adviser more than other students.”

Though the difference education intervention was only about an hour long, it had dramatic, long-term benefits for the first-generation students who attended. Over the course of a year, students who received difference education earned higher GPAs than freshmen who attended an intervention in which seniors shared stories about their college experiences without raising the subject of social class or connecting it to their stories.

In fact, difference education eliminated the GPA gap between first-generation and continuing-generation students, as well as the disparity in the rate at which the two groups took advantage of institutional resources.

Closing the (Invisible) Class Divide
One explanation for the success of difference education is that it makes explicit, and so perhaps more solvable, the problem of class divisions in American society.

“Americans are much less comfortable talking about social class than gender or race”, Stephens says. “It threatens our collective values as Americans and the idea that as individuals we should be able to create our own path and be the architects our own fate. So class is an issue we don’t know how to deal with. And that means that first-generation students go to college without having a sense of how their social background might matter. If you don’t have a framework for understanding how your background matters, and you experience obstacles that other students don’t face, you might incorrectly infer that it’s because you don’t have what it takes to succeed in college.

“But if you understand that it’s normal for students from a background like yours to encounter obstacles—and that it doesn’t mean that you’re deficient, but that rather you need to do different things to succeed—that equips you to deal with the challenges you face.”

The knowledge that they will face certain obstacles, and that the obstacles can be overcome with easily available tools, seems to create a virtuous cycle of empowerment among first-generation students.

“When they seek out help and take advantage of campus resources,” Stephens said, “they often have experiences that affirm the framework they have for understanding how their social class backgrounds matter in college. So, the framework shapes their behavior, and then their experiences feed back into the framework. The intervention has potential to initiate a series of events that build on one another, producing long-lasting academic and psychological benefits.”