First-generation students do better when colleges affirm their values

February 12, 2021

College students whose parents didn't attend can have trouble adjusting. (Pixabay/Uniliderpromocion)

University students whose parents haven’t received a four-year college degree suffer psychological and academic shocks from a perceived “cultural mismatch” on campus, but new research shows that exercises aimed at integrating students’ cultural identities can help boost academic performance and increase feelings that they belong.

According to a paper published Jan. 26 in the Journal of Social Issues, first-generation students — who may come to campus feeling that their identities clash with their universities’ — get better math scores and report feeling more aligned with their institutions after affirming values associated both with their schools and their upbringing.

The findings suggest “a promising, scalable solution” to help traditionally underrepresented students thrive in higher education, according to co-author Cameron Hecht, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Cultural mismatch is one of … many barriers” first-generation university students face, he told The Academic Times. “It is less visible to policymakers and stakeholders than other barriers are, but for that reason, it can be especially pernicious.”

In an effort to ultimately improve outcomes for first-generation students, Hecht worked with co-authors Stacy Priniski, Yoi Tibbetts and Judith Harackiewicz to study what can be done to reduce students’ perceptions that they don't belong at their universities.

Prior research suggested that first-generation students face a distinct “social identity threat” when entering university settings, the researchers noted. That’s because these students, who come disproportionately from working-class backgrounds, frequently don’t see their values reflected in the culture of their new academic institutions.

“Like the schools and social structures that wealthier children are socialized within, universities tend to emphasize personal discovery and individuality,” Hecht said, making the jump from high school to college generally feel more natural to higher-income students whose parents obtained four-year degrees.

“First-generation students, on the other hand, can experience a type of culture shock when they arrive on campus,” he continued. “Some of the values they are most familiar with are conspicuously absent, and this can lead to doubts about whether or how they really fit into a place like this.”

The experience of cultural mismatch pressures first-generation students both psychologically and academically, the authors noted, leading to increased stress and lower classroom performance compared to continuing-generation peers, or students whose parents also attended a four-year college.

Exercises prompting first-generation students to reflect on their “independent” values, such as the importance of personal achievement, have been shown to improve academic performance, according to the researchers, who added that the benefit could stem from students’ affirming norms they have in common with their universities.

Such values-affirmation interventions “may help students to bridge the personal values and aspects of their identity that they associate with their cultural background and the aspects of their identity that they associate with being a student in their university’s cultural context,” the researchers wrote.

But if that’s the case, they reasoned, then an intervention designed to also bring out "interdependent" values, such as looking after one's family, could give first-generation students an even bigger boost. By affirming aspects of both their working-class and university-oriented identities, a “combined” values-affirmation exercise could help students integrate parts of themselves they once viewed as in conflict with one another.

Hecht and his colleagues began their research by showing that first-generation and continuing-generation students report different levels of “institutional match” between themselves and their universities. 

That gap is partly explained by the different motives that brought students from each group to campus in the first place, according to the researchers; for example, first-generation students were likelier than their continuing-generation counterparts to cite interdependent reasons for getting a university degree, such as helping family and giving back to one’s community.

The results gave them further evidence that cultural mismatch was at play — and further reason to suspect their combined values-affirmation intervention could be a particularly effective antidote.

The experimental intervention was conducted in an introductory psychology course at a state university and involved 220 student participants, 39% of whom were first-generation.

Each participant was randomly assigned one of three exercises: a combined values-affirmation intervention, in which about half of them wrote about both an independent and an interdependent value that was important to them; a standard values-affirmation exercise, in which only 29% wrote about both types of values; or a control condition, in which the students wrote about why some set of values might be important to someone else.

The respondents, who had already taken a math “pre-test” to establish their baseline math abilities, then took another math test after completing the writing section.

Compared to the other two activities, the researchers found the combined values-affirmation exercise they developed cut the “institutional match” gap between first-generation and continuing-generation students by 90%.

Against their expectations, they also discovered that it seemed to boost all students’ math scores, regardless of their generational status.

According to Hecht, Priniski, Tibbetts and Harackiewicz, the results suggest that bringing out both aspects of first-generation students’ “bicultural” identities gives them an opportunity to integrate the two — a particularly effective solution to the problem of cultural mismatch.

In settings where underrepresented groups of many kinds feel their values and identities don’t align with prevailing university norms, Hecht said, “There is definitely reason for optimism” that self-affirmation activities like the one he and his co-authors studied could effectively be integrated into the school experience — particularly when combined with coursework.

But such activities can only go so far to remedy mismatch that might be better addressed at a structural level, he added.

"I ... hope that the work draws more attention to the problem of cultural mismatch and prompts more efforts to create change at the university level,” Hecht said. “In an ideal world, universities would be places where all students feel like they belong, and this type of intervention would be unnecessary.”

The article “Affirming both independent and interdependent values improves achievement for all students and mitigates cultural mismatch for first‐generation college students,” published on Jan. 26 in the Journal of Social Issues, was co-authored by Cameron A. Hecht, University of Texas at Austin; Stacy J. Priniski, Michigan State University; Yoi Tibbetts, University of Virginia; and Judith M. Harackiewicz, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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