Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

There is no denying that social class plays a role in higher-education outcomes. Students who do not have college-educated parents tend to lag behind their peers who do, in part because of the stress involved in adjusting to a culture they have little experience navigating.

But according to Nicole Stephens, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg school, a single hour-long meeting could go a long way toward reversing that trend.

In a new research paper that follows up on students who participated in an earlier intervention, Stephens and her colleagues found that when first-generation college freshman attended what the researchers call a “difference-education intervention”—a meeting where seniors discuss their college experience in light of their social backgrounds—they were better-adjusted and more at ease by the end of their sophomore year than those who attended a meeting where social background was never mentioned.

“The results suggest what we originally theorized,” Stephens says. “A brief intervention can systematically change how students respond over time to the stress of being in college. When they hear others talk about how their backgrounds shaped their experience, they begin to feel more comfortable, and they are more likely to thrive.”

The study—which Stephens coauthored with Sarah Townsend of USC, MarYam Hamedani of Stanford University, and Mesmin Destin and Vida Manzo of Northwestern University—was conducted in two parts. First, there was the intervention: more than a hundred students, some of whom were first-generation college-goers, attended a meeting that took place during the first few weeks of their freshman year. One group attended a meeting that addressed the importance of social background; the other group’s meeting did not.

Two years later, the researchers studied those same students. Each student was asked to give a short speech and perform a series of stressful tasks, including a GRE-style test and a word-search puzzle.

The results were clear: all students who had attended the meeting where social class was discussed were better able to use what Stephens calls the “difference-education framework.” Specifically, in a speech they were asked to give, these participants were more comfortable discussing their own background and its influence on their college lives. First-generation participants in this group also showed more physiological thriving, as measured by changes in their neuroendocrine levels.

“It’s a self-reinforcing process,” Stephens says. “If you change how people are making sense of their experience at a transitional moment, you can change their behavior, and that in turn will influence how they experience their environment. So there are significant long-term benefits, especially for first-generation college students. Indirectly, the study shows that some are able to use their working-class backgrounds as a source of strength.”

Stephens says the ultimate goal is to help students understand the significance of all social backgrounds, which is why she advises colleges to make such interventions inclusive, rather than hold a special meeting that targets first-generation students. “You want this to be a positive and nonthreatening experience for everyone,” she says. “Each student should feel empowered and comfortable with his or her background.”

The study marks an exciting advance in the field of “intervention science,” much of which is focused on improving education outcomes. “Whether it’s helping disadvantaged students perform better in college or encouraging women in STEM fields, we find that interventions can be a simple, effective tool,” she says.

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