Thursday, January 30, 2014

Helping First-Generation College Students Succeed

Northwestern Professor Nicole Stephens and her colleagues—MarYam G. Hamedani of Stanford University and Mesmin Destin at Northwestern University—have conducted several studies examining the academic performance of first-generation college students.  Not surprisingly, they have found that, all else equal, first-generation college students do indeed underperform those young people with parents who have attended college.  Their research aims to understand how we might close that performance gap.   I'm particularly interested in this topic, since I was a first-generation college student.  Moreover, companies should be interested in this topic, since they want to insure that they can attract talented young people who have learned a great deal and achieved their potential in college. 

This research challenges the notion that extra academic skills-based preparation for these first-generation students yields performance improvement.   Many schools offer these "skills" enhancement programs, but they have not yielded positive results.  These scholars designed a program whereby college seniors would share their experiences with new students, describing to them how "their backgrounds affected their experience."   According to Kellogg Research Insights, "Seniors were asked, for example, to share an obstacle they faced in college and how they overcame it."  

The scholars found that those students receiving this intervention earned higher grade point averages than those who listened to seniors share their stories without an explicit discussion of backgrounds and social class. Amazingly, the researchers found that this program "eliminated the GPA gap between first-generation and continuing-generation students, as well as the disparity in the rate at which the two groups took advantage of institutional resources." 

Stephens explains, "If you understand that it’s normal for students from a background like yours to encounter obstacles—and that it doesn’t mean that you’re deficient, but that rather you need to do different things to succeed—that equips you to deal with the challenges you face.”

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