Written by Areal Carter
With each passing year, the numbers of first-generation college students are increasing (Stephens et al., 2012) These are students who are the first in their families to attend institutes of higher education. These students tend to struggle more both academically and culturally than students who at least have one parent with a Bachelor’s degree (Stephens et al., 2012). The purpose of this blog is to shed light on the achievement gap and the cultural mismatch theory that affect first-generation students. First, the blog will present the achievement gap and how it can cause students to struggle. Second, the blog will present cultural mismatch theory and how it affects first-generation college students.
The Achievement Gap
The achievement gap refers to the observed disparity in academic performance between different groups of students (Warburton, Bugarin, & Nunez, 2001). Most first-generation college students come from lower middle or working class, whereas non-first-generation students tend to come from upper middle class or lower upper-class families. Many first-generation students attend high schools of poor academic standing that do not prepare them for transition into college; they often need additional tutoring, mentoring, and social support (Warburton et al., 2001). Findings suggest that the gap in academic performance between first-generation and non-first-generation students partially due to the middle class cultural norms of independence that are institutionalized in many U.S. university and colleges (Warburton et al., 2001). When the values and backgrounds of students and higher education settings match one another, students are better able to be served because they feel as though they have social support with the same goals and backgrounds.
Cultural Mismatch Theory
The cultural mismatch theory, according to Stephens and colleagues (2012), is the theory that the U.S. university culture reflects the pervasive middle-class norms of independence that are foundational to U.S. society. In short, most universities follow the motto of paving one’s own way in life (Stephens et al., 2012). Universities stresses the values of independence and interdependence within the college system. Many first-generation college students are more prone to interdependence than independence, whereas universities often stress independence over interdependence (Stephens et al., 2012). and values that students bring to college are influenced by their social classes, and more first-generation students focus on interdependence than they do independence when they come to college (Stephens et al., 2012). They are more concerned with community outreach than becoming independent thinkers. When a student’s motives match the university’s cultural norms which is being more interdependence this has a positive effect on the student’s academic performance (Stephens et al., 2012). Students perform better academically if they feel as though they fit into a system that reflects their values (Stephens et al., 2012). Students may also feel as though they better fit into universities based on the social support that is provided therein, such as student counseling services, bridge programs for transitioning students, and multicultural diversity centers. These programs help provide a conducive environment for first-generation college students to perform well academically and help them to feel as though they are supported by and connected to their universities (Warburton et al., 2001).
In conclusion, the key to helping first-generation college students adjust to life in higher education is by implementing programs to aid in their involvement in the university and feelings of inclusion and by providing them with academic, emotional, and financial support (Warburton et al., 2001). Implementing these types of programs may positively impact the students by making them feel as though they have sources of mentorship, motivation, and encouragement. These types of qualities can majorly impact a student’s grades, social environment and desire to stay in school and earn a degree.
Stephens, N. M., Fryberg, S. A., Markus, H. R., Johnson, C. S., & Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen disadvantage: How American universities' focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 1178-1197. doi: 10.1037/a0027143
Warburton, E., Bugarin, R., & Nunez, A. (2001). Bridging the gap: Academic preparation and postsecondary success of first-generation students (Report No. NCES 2001–153). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Government Printing Office.
Dr. H. Colleen Sinclair
Social Psychologist, Relationships Researcher,
Ms. Chelsea Ellithorpe
Lab Manager of the Social Relations Collaborative and Blog Editor