Unseen Disadvantage: How American Universities’ Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students

Stephens, Fryberg, Markus, Johnson, Covarrubias, 2012 / Journal of Personality and Social Psychlogy / March 2012

university campus fall leaves

Four studies test the hypothesis that first-gen students underperform because interdependent norms from their mostly working-class backgrounds constitute a mismatch with middle-class independent norms prevalent in universities. First, assessing university cultural norms, surveys of university administrators revealed that American universities focus primarily on norms of independence. Second, identifying the hypothesized cultural mismatch, a longitudinal survey revealed that universities’ focus on independence does not match first-gen students’ relatively interdependent motives for attending college and this cultural mismatch is associated with lower grades. Finally, two experiments created a match or mismatch for first-gen students and examined the performance consequences.