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Acknowledging Social Class Helps First-Gen Students Excel

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Students who are the first in their families to attend college struggle to keep up with their classmates from college-going families.


Acknowledging first-generation college students’ unique needs and empowering them to take advantage of university resources helps them adjust to college and earn better grades.


Social psychologist Nicole Stephens and her colleagues recruited incoming students who either had at least one parent with a four-year degree (continuing-generation students) or no parent with a college degree (first-generation students). Her team then randomly assigned these freshmen to attend one of two panel discussions.

Participants in the standard condition heard senior students talk about their college troubles and how they overcame them. Participants in the intervention condition also heard tales of struggle and success, but their panelists explicitly linked their stories to their social-class backgrounds. For instance, one senior described how her parents couldn’t give her advice about which classes to take because they didn’t go to college, and then revealed how she learned to rely on her college advisers for guidance.

Stephens and colleagues found that first-generation students in the standard condition earned GPAs that were .30 grade points lower than the continuing-generation students’ GPAs. Yet their intervention closed this gap by 63%, eliminating the difference between first-generation and continuing-generation students’ grades. The intervention also helped all students, regardless of their class backgrounds, by lowering their stress and anxiety, increasing their engagement with academic life, and enriching their social support networks, as compared to students in the standard condition.

Why This Works

Many first-generation students do not understand how their social class background can help or harm their college experience. After this intervention, first-generation students sought more help, which in turn increased their GPAs.

When This Works Best

This intervention works best at institutions that can offer adequate social psychological and academic resources to first-generation students. 

Try It Yourself

SPARQTools First-Gen Ascend

The Original Study

Stephens, N. M., Hamedani, M. G., & 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(4), 943-953.

In the Press

Kellogg Insight (Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University) 

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