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Editor's Note

Toward First-Generation Success

University Business, April 2012

New research confirms what many in higher education have long suspected: Students who are the first in their families to attend college—first-generation college students—are at an unseen academic disadvantage in college.

The study, “Unseen Disadvantage: How American Universities’ Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students,” from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University (Ill.) says “the seemingly positive middle- and upper-class cultural norms that pervade traditional American universities (such as ‘do your own thing,’ ‘pave your own path,’ and ‘express yourself’) can undermine the academic performance of first-generation students.”

One in six students at four-year universities are first-generation students, says lead researcher Nicole Stevens, but these students may face a “cultural mismatch” when they head to college. Universities may also inadvertently play a role in reproducing the very social inequalities that they hope to alleviate. For middle-class students, college is “the ultimate symbol of independence” and also allows students to “distinguish themselves from their parents and realize their individual potential.” By contrast, students from working-class backgrounds are likely to have been socialized with different “rules of the game”—rules that emphasize interdependence with others and strong community ties.

Universities may be inadvertently creating the social inequalities they hope to alleviate.

The research has many implications for how colleges and universities can change the way they approach first-generation students. “Social-psychological interventions that more systematically expand the university culture so that they include ideas and practices of interdependence may go a long way toward remedying the unseen disadvantage experienced by first-generation students in American universities today,” the authors write.

The conclusions may not be news to many in higher education, who have long recognized the disadvantages that first generation college students often encounter. However, there are efforts being made to reverse the situation.

For example, since its pilot collaboration with Vanderbilt University (Tenn.) in 1989, the Posse Foundation has been helping groups of diverse students from challenging backgrounds succeed in their college careers.  The organization works with partner universities to identify groups of first-generation students who exhibit leadership, motivation, teamwork, and communication qualities for the purposes of forming a “posse.”

The group members then enroll together and support each other throughout their time at the institution. The foundation also helps partner schools build more interactive campus environments that can be more welcoming for people from all backgrounds. So far, the Posse Foundation has enrolled more than 4,200 students at 40 undergraduate institutions and nine graduates schools throughout the country, and has racked up a remarkable 90 percent graduation rate.

It’s a model that should be expanded and emulated throughout the country. Let’s hear what you think.