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2014 September 9

First-generation students

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There were a couple of blog posts by in The Academe Blog in August 2014 pointing to articles about first-generation college students: students whose parents did not graduate from college with 4-year degrees.  This is a particularly important topic for University of California campuses, as UC admissions puts a high premium on being a first-generation student, resulting in large numbers of first-generation students.  (In Fall 2013, 44% of the freshmen at UCSC were first-generation students.)

In the first post First Generation Students Part I: Difference-Education, Walter Breau quotes from an  interview published in the Stanford Report:

“Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap,” offers a new approach to help [first-generation students] advance in college: discuss class differences rather than ignore them. The research showed that when incoming first-generation students saw and heard stories from junior and senior students with different social-class backgrounds tell stories about their struggles and successes in college, they gained a framework to understand how their backgrounds shaped their own experiences and how to see this as an asset,”

(How’s that for 4 levels of indirection: me quoting Breau quoting an interview with Hamidani about a paper by Hamidani, Stephens, and Westin.)

The abstract of the paper itself sums up the research fairly well:

College students who do not have parents with 4-year degrees (first-generation students) earn lower grades and encounter more obstacles to success than do students who have at least one parent with a 4-year degree (continuing-generation students). In the study reported here, we tested a novel intervention designed to reduce this social-class achievement gap with a randomized controlled trial (N = 168). Using senior college students’ real-life stories, we conducted a difference-education intervention with incoming students about how their diverse backgrounds can shape what they experience in college. Compared with a standard intervention that provided similar stories of college adjustment without highlighting students’ different backgrounds, the difference-education intervention eliminated the social-class achievement gap by increasing first-generation students’ tendency to seek out college resources (e.g., meeting with professors) and, in turn, improving their end-of-year grade point averages. The difference-education intervention also improved the college transition for all students on numerous psychosocial outcomes (e.g., mental health and engagement).

The do not identify the private university at which they did the study, and I believe that the details of the university make a huge difference.  The adjustments needed when first-generation students are an insignificant minority (as they are at most elite private colleges) and when they are 44% of the incoming class are likely quite different, and so the interventions needed may differ not just in scale but in kind.  Since all the authors are at private research universities (Stanford and Northwestern), they likely did their study at either Stanford or Northwestern, neither of which has many first-generation students, and both of which have large numbers of rather wealthy students.  I question somewhat how well the results of studies on such campuses generalizes to the public universities which may soon be majority first-generation students (or already are in some cases), and where social class is not so skewed toward the wealthy.

In First Generation Students Part II: Cultural Fit, Walter Breau points to an article about cultural fit:

“Unseen Disadvantage: How American Universities’ Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students,” published in 2012 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, concluded:

“That the seemingly positive middle-and upper-class cultural norms that pervade traditional American universities—norms that emphasize independent values such as ‘do your own thing,’ ‘pave your own path,’ and ‘express yourself’—can undermine the academic performance of first-generation students.”

The distinction that the article makes between “middle-class” and “working-class” values is independence vs. interdependence.  They found that college administrators at top-ranked colleges valued independent decision making much more than they valued interdependence, but that there were not significant differences between responses to questions about about independent vs. collaborative work.  Lower ranked colleges had less of a skew toward valuing independent decision making, but were otherwise fairly similar.

The study looked at a modest sample of student surveys and grades (245 first-generation, 1179 continuing-generation) to see whether independent/interdependent motive predicted cumulative GPA at the end of 2 years.  The effect sizes they saw were tiny—only coming out larger than race because they lumped all non-white race categories together, which makes some sense for looking at independent/interdependent, but not for looking at GPA, since Asian student typically perform quite differently from black and Latino students.  SAT scores alone were a much better predictor of grades than any of the sociological variables they looked at, and the only really good predictor of 2-year GPA was the 1-year GPA. So, while their results were statistically significant, it is not clear that they were really large enough to justify any conclusions about whether the “American Universities’ Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students”.  I certainly would not want to base policy decisions on such small effects.

Their study was done at schools with only about 17% first-generation students (based on the participant numbers in their study), which may be typical of US colleges as a whole, but is nothing like the UC system.  Even UCB, with the lowest ratio of first-generation students of any UC campus, had 23% first-generation students in 2010 (the latest for which I could find UC-wide data), and some campus were majority first-generation even in 2010 (Merced and Riverside).

Although it is important for UC to figure out how to help first-generation college students succeed, it is not clear to me that either of the studies that Breau reported on have much relevance for UC.


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