Student Experience Research Network Blog

Starting college is a big deal for all students. But for some it is a bigger deal than others.

In the US, about 80 percent of undergraduates at four-year colleges have the benefit of siblings, parents, and relatives who have walked that same path before them. Their first year in college will undoubtedly have its ups and downs, but at least they have a blueprint. For the roughly 20 percent who are the first in their family to go to college, however, the transition to college is a bigger challenge—and can make or break their chances of becoming the first in their families to graduate.

For many of these “first-gen” students, college is both high stakes and a black box. While some may arrive with the weight of their entire family’s expectations on their shoulders, others may feel isolated from those at home whose experiences are now vastly different. First-gen students also lack the years of accumulated knowledge about financial aid, degree planning, dorm life, and an educational environment that is completely unlike high school.

As a result, first-gen students are particularly susceptible when they—like most students—hit the inevitable bumps in the road early on, such as the first bad grade or not being asked to join a study group. But compared to their “continuing-generation” peers, they are more likely to worry that these experiences aren’t normal—and see them as evidence that they don’t belong in college and won’t succeed. First-gen students also often face a unique set of obstacles that make it harder to integrate into academic and social life on campus, whether it’s being unable to afford to join social activities in their dorm or having to commute two hours to and from home each day. On top of these challenges, however, their interpretations of the everyday adversities faced in college can compound an already precarious position.

Researchers in the Student Experience Research Network have been developing programs that are designed to help first-gen students—and other students who are members of under-represented or stigmatized groups—succeed in the transition to college. These programs shore up students’ sense of belonging and fit on campus by changing the way they interpret adversity and giving them strategies to deal with challenging situations they might face. As a result, students are able to build valuable relationships with peers and instructors, and gain greater access to resources on campus.

One such program is a pre-matriculation social belonging program developed by Network scholars Greg Walton and Geoff Cohen. This program is currently being tested on 18 campuses nationwide in the College Transition Collaborative—an initiative of the Student Experience Research Network. This program helps students understand that everyone faces adversities and worries that they don’t belong when they first arrive on campus, but that these worries lessen with time. Previous studies of this social belonging program show that it can increase academic outcomes and health and well-being among students from under-represented groups.

Another program developed by Network Scholars Nicole Stephens and Mesmin Destin focuses on students’ cultural fit. It teaches first-gen freshmen in college that while their social-class background may give rise to certain obstacles or challenges, their background can also be a source of strength as they learn how to navigate college. This difference-education program was shown in a recent randomized control trial to eliminate the social-class achievement gap in first-year students’ grades by increasing the likelihood that first-gen students sought out resources on campus.

Other research by Network scholars Nicole Stephens and Stephanie Fryberg on cultural fit shows that the relative match between students’ motives for attending college and universities’ cultural norms affects students’ performance. Longitudinal data showed that first generation students were more likely to hold interdependent motives, rather than more traditionally middle-class independent motives for attending college. Moreover, a mismatch between students’ motives for attending college (i.e., a cultural mismatch between students’ interdependent motives and the university culture’s focus on independence) negatively predicted students’ grades. In a randomized controlled trial, first generation students in this study performed better on academic tasks when they received an orientation welcome letter from their college emphasizing its interdependent cultural norms (learning and working together with others) than when the same letter emphasized independent cultural norms (independent thinking and learning).

Programs such as these do not erase the unique challenges faced by first-gen students, nor do they eliminate the need for a multifaceted set of supports for such students before, and after, they get on campus. Others are hard at work developing initiatives targeting both students and post-secondary institutions across the country. However, these mindset programs may be a useful complement to other institutional efforts targeted at these students, and could help first gen students—and their families—realize their dreams for a college degree and a bright future.


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