Talking about Social Class Reduces College Achievement Gap

By McGlynn, Angela Provitera | The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, August 25, 2014 | Go to article overview

Talking about Social Class Reduces College Achievement Gap


McGlynn, Angela Provitera, The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education


As income inequality has been on the front burner of many a political discus^^m^^sion, there are still many people who prefer not to talk about social class in America. Our nation was supposed to be merit oriented and based on equality for all. That idea is part of an "American Dream" mythology and is recognized by the researchers who created an ingenious one-hour intervention for first semester, first-generation college students that had a profound effect on academic achievement and transition to college.

Past studies have found that first-generation college students tend to lag other students on a number of academic measures with lower grades and higher drop-out rates.

Colleges that understand the need to narrow this achievement gap both for the students themselves, who will not be able to move up the socioeconomic ladder without a degree, and for our nation that will be unable to meet the needs of a global work force, have made a concerted effort to recruit more low-income, first-generation, and minority college students, particularly Hispanics and African-Americans.

Ironically, over the past 50 years, higher college enrollments of this underserved group have "continued to reproduce and widen, rather than close" an achievement gap based on social class (Duncan & Murnane (2011) and Fiske & Markus (2012).

First-generation students are students whose parents have not earned a college degree. Continuinggeneration students have at least one parent with a college degree. Is it possible to create a one-hour, practically no-cost program that can narrow the academic achievement gap between these groups of students at the college level? Apparently, it can, and such a program has done just that.

A paper entitled, "Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap: A Difference-Education Intervention Improves First-Generation Students' Academic Performance and All Students' College Transition," appeared recently in the journal, Psychological Science.

The authors of the paper are Nicole M. Stephens, associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Mar Yam G. Hamedani, associate director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University, and Mesmin Destin, assistant professor of psychology in Northwestern University's School of Education and Social Policy and in its Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

The researchers started with a straight-forward hypothesis: first-generation students maybe lacking less in academic potential than in knowing what it means to be a college student and how to be successful. Lacking guidance from parents who don't have the savvy about moving through the system of a college education, first-generation students are in greater need of college guidance to make the transition to college and to succeed academically.

Citing previous research, the authors state that many first-generation students "struggle to navigate the middle-class culture of higher education, learn the 'rules of the game,' and take advantage of college resources... Because U.S. colleges and universities seldom acknowledge how social class can affect students' educational experiences, many first-generation students lack insight about why they are struggling and do not understand how students 'like them' can improve."

The study took place at an unnamed private university and findings are based on 147 students who completed the project. Third and fourth year college students from diverse family backgrounds talked to two groups of participating students at the beginning of the first-year students' academic semester. The programs were presented as being for all students so that first-generation students would not feel they were being stereotyped or stigmatized.

In the "difference-education intervention," third and fourth year student panelists talked about transitioning to college and deliberately but subtly mentioned ways that students' different social class backgrounds affected their college experience. …

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