Unseen disadvantage: How American universities' focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students

Nicole M. Stephens*, Stephanie A. Fryberg, Hazel Rose Markus, Camille S. Johnson, Rebecca Covarrubias

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

643 Scopus citations


American universities increasingly admit first-generation college students whose parents do not have 4-year degrees. Once admitted, these students tend to struggle academically, compared with continuing-generation students-students who have at least 1 parent with a 4-year degree. We propose a cultural mismatch theory that identifies 1 important source of this social class achievement gap. Four studies test the hypothesis that first-generation 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-generation students' relatively interdependent motives for attending college and that this cultural mismatch is associated with lower grades. Finally, 2 experiments at both private and public universities created a match or mismatch for first-generation students and examined the performance consequences. Together these studies revealed that representing the university culture in terms of independence (i.e., paving one's own paths) rendered academic tasks difficult and, thereby, undermined first-generation students' performance. Conversely, representing the university culture in terms of interdependence (i.e., being part of a community) reduced this sense of difficulty and eliminated the performance gap without adverse consequences for continuing-generation students. These studies address the urgent need to recognize cultural obstacles that contribute to the social class achievement gap and to develop interventions to address them.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1178-1197
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of personality and social psychology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2012


  • Culture
  • First-generation students
  • Higher education
  • Social class
  • Social inequality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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