It’s one of the most frustrating facts in education: Compared with peers from middle- and upper-class families, students from working-class families—those who are low-income or the first in their families to attend college—struggle to achieve in college. Even the most highly qualified working-class students receive lower GPAs and drop out more often than their middle- and upper-class peers. Since education is a powerful engine of social mobility, this persistent achievement gap means that the American dream remains out of reach for far too many working-class students.
What’s going on? To explain these dismal outcomes, policymakers often point to what working-class students lack. Many face real obstacles in terms of academic skills such as writing or math, and may need additional tutoring because they attended low quality high schools. Many also struggle with meeting their basic needs while in school: Recent surveys have found that 9 percent of college students in the U.S. do not have reliable housing, and, remarkably, half report anxiety about getting enough food.
Yet even when universities address these challenges, social class achievement gaps persist. As one survey found, even if you take prior academic preparation into account, you’ll still see achievement gaps. Similarly prepared students from different backgrounds fare differently after they reach the college gates. It’s clear that something deeper is also at work, and that something happens during college.
We’ve spent years studying this phenomenon, and our research has identified an additional obstacle for working-class students that is often unseen, but plays a key role in fueling these disparities: a cultural mismatch between working-class students and the schools they attend. Many of these students report feeling like their college or university is not set up for students “like them,” or feeling like they are guests in someone else’s house. These experiences reflect a critical insight, one that colleges need to take into account if they want to help narrow America’s social class opportunity gap.
As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu observed, culture is a key mechanism for creating social class inequality—taken-for-granted cues and behaviors that may have nothing to do with people’s actual abilities, but become part of our institutional standards and get defined as merit. In higher education, for example, our research shows that universities tend to rely on standards of merit that reflect independent values, leading educators to assume that students should pave their own paths, be independent thinkers, challenge norms and rules, and feel comfortable expressing their personal preferences.
Decades of research in the social sciences shows that people from working-class communities tend to prioritize a different set of values, including being socially responsive, adjusting to others, and being part of a group — values of interdependence. They do so, in part, because they have fewer material resources than people raised in middle- and upper-class contexts, and therefore have less choice, influence, and control over their lives. Without an economic safety net, they are often socialized to follow the rules and attend to others’ needs and interests. While middle- and upper-class families tend to raise their children with the promise that the “world is your oyster,” many working-class families are built around a different reality: “You can’t always get what you want.”
These divergent values can guide students’ experiences in college. When asked why they’re motivated to attend college, students from middle- and upper-class backgrounds tend to focus on goals that reflect universities’ standards of independence, such as exploring personal passions or making a mark on the world. By contrast, our research has found that working-class students more often focus on goals that reflect standards of interdependence, such as helping their families or giving back to their communities. They often enter educational settings with little experience focusing on themselves and exploring personal passions, and are instead more prepared to focus on others and contribute to a group. When working-class students don’t promote their individual interests like their middle-class peers have learned to do, they often get viewed as lesser or deficient.
This cultural mismatch between the university culture of independence and working-class norms of interdependence is consequential. In a series of experiments, we have found that exposing students to the university’s cultural standard of independence (e.g., pave your own path) can increase working-class students’ stress, reduce their sense of belonging and undermine performance. The college culture of independence can further undermine working-class students’ opportunity to succeed because it encourages students to take a narrow focus on individual responsibility. As a result, when facing setbacks, working-class students tend to believe that they—and they alone—are responsible, thinking, “I just don’t have what it takes” or “I must not be smart enough.” The emphasis on independence may also discourage them from seeking tutoring or mentoring, thinking that they need to figure things out on their own. In that sense, the university’s emphasis on independence can not only lead working-class students to be labeled deficient, but also create the very “deficiencies” that are so often assumed to characterize them.
What can policymakers and educators do to address social class gaps in students’ academic outcomes? The very idea of institution-student cultural mismatch contains the solution: when universities incorporate interdependence along with independence into their cultures, working-class students benefit. In our studies, we find that doing something as simple as revising a university welcome messageto include concepts of interdependence (e.g., be part of a community) leads working-class students to perform just as well as their socioeconomically advantaged peers on an academic task. Universities should therefore consider changing their websites, orientation materials and student guidebooks to incorporate the value of interdependence.
Another simple fix is to promote more group learning. In ongoing research led by Andrea Dittmann, we are finding that asking students to work together interdependently on a problem-solving task can lead groups of working-class students to outperform groups of their socioeconomically advantaged peers. Universities should therefore emphasize the value of working in groups; promote a community of peers who can navigate college together; and connect all students to the support of advisors or mentors.
The fact that changing the university culture can close—or even reverse—social class achievement gaps challenges the idea that working-class students are deficient. Instead, it suggests that many students do not reach their potential because the university culture is, in fact, not set up for students like them.
In our research with Stanford University research scientist MarYam Hamedani, we’ve found that it can be transformational to teach working-class students this critical lesson: Their setbacks in college are not because of their individual deficiencies, but instead due to contextual factors such as differences in preparation. In one orientation program designed to convey this message, a working-class student discussed how his background—going to a less rigorous high school and not having college-educated parents—led him to have a difficult time adjusting to college and making the right decisions for his future career. From this student’s story, incoming students learn that this student’s challenges aren’t because he is individually deficient or incapable, but because he comes from a different social class context. In our intervention studies, we’ve shown that simply being offered this lesson increases working-class students’ willingness to seek help and improves their grades throughout college. And further, all students can benefit from incorporating more contextual ways of thinking in college.
Together, this work suggests that policymakers, educators and practitioners will have greater success promoting the achievement of working-class students if they take a hard look at the cultures of universities themselves. Bridging resource and skill gaps is a necessary first step to helping these students achieve, but if we truly want to level the playing field, we must expand the culture of higher education to include interdependence as well as independence. That’s the best way to ensure that working-class students are neither labeled—nor rendered—deficient by the university culture, and to make the American dream more accessible to those who need it the most.
Nicole Stephens is associate professor of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Sarah Townsend is the Kenneth King Stonier Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.