Access is not enough: Cultural mismatch persists to limit first-generation students’ opportunities for achievement throughout college.

L. Taylor Phillips*, Nicole M. Stephens, Sarah S.M. Townsend, Sébastien Goudeau

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

92 Scopus citations


United States higher education prioritizes independence as the cultural ideal. As a result, first-generation students (neither parent has a four-year degree) often confront an initial cultural mismatch early on in college settings: they endorse relatively interdependent cultural norms that diverge from the independent cultural ideal. This initial cultural mismatch can lead first-generation students to perform less well academically compared with continuing-generation students (one or more parents have a four-year degree) early in college. Yet, what happens as first-generation students experience the university culture throughout their time in college? Using cross-sectional and longitudinal approaches, we find that initial cultural mismatch is associated with psychological and academic costs that persist until graduation. First, at college entry, we find social class differences in cultural norms: first-generation students endorse more interdependent cultural norms than their continuing-generation peers. Second, endorsing interdependence at college entry predicts reduced subjective sense of fit in college four years later. Third, lower subjective sense of fit predicts lower grade point average and subjective social status upon graduation. Together, these results suggest that initial cultural mismatch contributes to worse experiences and academic outcomes among first-generation students, and that these disparities persist even until graduation. Further, we find that social class differences in cultural norms remain stable throughout college: first-generation students continue to endorse more interdependence than do continuing-generation students. We suggest providing access is not sufficient to reduce social class inequity; colleges need to create more inclusive environments to ensure that students from diverse backgrounds can reap similar rewards.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1112-1131
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of personality and social psychology
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2020


  • belonging
  • first-generation students
  • inequality/inequity
  • person-environment fit
  • social class achievement gap

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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