A Surprising Path to Improving Working-Class Students’ Academic Achievement
Every fall, millions of students enroll in college for the first time. As they transition to their new environments, many worry about whether they “have what it takes” to be successful in college. This worry is often more substantive and consequential for students from working-class backgrounds, who often have different experiences than their peers from middle class backgrounds.
One experience students from working-class backgrounds have more often is that they feel like they don’t quite fit in or know the “rules of the game.” Like travelers entering a foreign land, these students enter colleges or universities that were set up by middle-class people, for middle-class students, and according to middle-class cultural norms. This can signal to students from working-class backgrounds that they aren’t fully included or welcome, decrease their feelings of fit and empowerment, and, ultimately, hurt their academic performance. As a result, even among those who have had equivalent academic preparation in high school, students from working-class backgrounds often achieve lower grades in college than those from middle-class backgrounds.
Is it possible to improve the academic performance of students from working-class backgrounds by drawing on their different experiences in college? We sought to develop and test a brief intervention for doing just that.
As cultural psychologists, we set out to empower students from working-class backgrounds and improve their sense of fitting in by acknowledging, rather than downplaying, the differences that mark students’ experiences in college. This was not an obvious route. People often assume that focusing on differences between social groups is dangerous or divisive. Bringing up how people from working-class backgrounds differ from those from middle-class backgrounds can highlight negative stereotypes and foster intergroup conflict, or so the reasoning goes.
However, we believed that, under the right circumstances, focusing on group differences could be positive and empowering. So we developed an intervention approach called “difference-education” and then attempted to create a brief version that could be easily implemented across a variety of colleges and universities.
This intervention teaches students that their divergent experiences in college are the result of their different experiences before coming to college, experiences that are linked to social class. Participants read a set of real-life stories about junior and senior students from diverse backgrounds. Each story revealed the student’s social class background and connected it to their experiences in college. Because the stories were from both working- and middle-class students, participants are able to see how students’ social class backgrounds lead them to face different obstacles and use different strategies to be successful. For example, one student’s story discussed how his social class background was associated with a difficulty: “Since my parents didn’t go to college, they didn’t feel they had room to tell me how to make my decisions . . . That definitely made things hard because I would have liked a bit of input from my parents.”
However, the stories also made clear that students’ backgrounds provided them with unique strengths as well: “The fact that [university name] seemed like such an improbable destination for me . . . really prompted me to work harder and contribute more to [university name] now that I’m here.” In our control or comparison group, participants read stories from the same diverse set of students. Although the stories discussed the challenges students faced in college and how they had learned to be successful, there was no mention of students’ social class backgrounds or how they mattered.
Among students in our comparison condition, as well as among students who were not in our study, we saw the typical social class achievement gap. That is, students from working-class backgrounds had significantly lower grade point averages (GPAs) than students from middle-class backgrounds. But, the brief intervention dramatically improved the academic achievement of college students from working-class backgrounds and closed this gap. Nearly two years after the study, students from working-class backgrounds who were in our intervention earned GPAs that were just as high as students from middle-class backgrounds. In addition, students from working-class backgrounds who were in our intervention outperformed students from working-class backgrounds who were not in our intervention. We found that an increase in these students’ sense of empowerment in college partially explained their improved GPAs.
A common assumption is that differences are bad and to be avoided. In our work, we challenge this idea. We show that reading a series of online stories that connect students’ college experiences to their different social class backgrounds can be empowering and improve the academic achievement of students from working-class backgrounds.
For Further Reading:
Stephens, N.M., Hamedani, M. H., & Destin, M. (2014). Closing the social-class achievement gap: A difference-education intervention improves first-generation students' academic performance and all students' college transition. Psychological Science, 25, 943-953. doi: 10.1177/0956797613518349
Stephens, N. M., Hamedani, M. G., & Townsend, S. S. M. (2018). Difference matters: Teaching students a contextual theory of difference can help them succeed. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14, 156–174. doi: 10.1177/1745691618797957
Stephens, N. M., Townsend, S. S. M., Hamedani, M. G., Destin, M., & Manzo, V. (2015). A difference-education intervention equips first-generation college students to thrive in the face of stressful college situations. Psychological Science, 26, 1556-1566. doi: 10.1177/0956797615593501
Townsend, S. S. M., Stephens, N. M., Smallets, S., & Hamedani, M. G. (2018). Empowerment through difference: An online difference-education intervention closes the social class achievement gap. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45, 1068-1083. doi: 10.1177/0146167218804548
Sarah S. M. Townsend is the Kenneth King Stonier Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.
Nicole M. Stephens is an Associate Professor in the Department of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.