During January’s White House opportunity summit,  policy makers and higher education leaders announced over 100 new initiatives designed to bolster first-generation and low-income students’ college success. While students who overcome the odds to gain access to college bring with them significant grit and resilience, the road through college is often a rocky one.
First Lady Michelle Obama described the obstacles that first-generation and low-income students commonly confront. No stranger to these challenges, she said:
You’re in a whole new world. You might have trouble making friends because you don’t see any peers who come from a background like yours. You might be worried about paying for classes, and food, and room and board because you have never had to set your own budget before. You might be feeling guilty when you call home because Mom and Dad are wondering why you didn’t get a job so you could help support their family. Those are the kinds of obstacles these kids are facing right from day one.
Even among the select group that make it to college, first-generation and low-income students, on average, find it harder to fit in, receive lower grades, and drop out at higher rates than do students from higher income backgrounds with college-educated parents (i.e., continuing-generation students). Study after study demonstrates that the financial, academic, and psychological barriers that these students encounter can significantly undermine their performance.
The summit shined the national policy spotlight on this persistent social class achievement gap. Our own and others’ research shows that these feelings of exclusion and difference that the First Lady described are key factors that fuel the gap. While all students tend to question whether they belong and have what it takes to succeed, these concerns are magnified for first-generation and low-income students because of the mismatch they experience as they enter this “whole new world” of higher education.
More needs to be done on campuses to raise awareness about how college environments can be unfamiliar and unwelcoming places to students who do not hail from middle and upper class worlds. Efforts to do just that are cropping up — from Massachusetts Institute of Technology  to Northwestern University  to Stanford University  — at colleges and universities across the nation.
Our research  provides compelling evidence that talking about social class equips first-generation and low-income students to succeed. In our recent study, published in Psychological Science, we invited first-generation and continuing-generation students at the beginning of the school year to attend a one-hour program designed to help them transition to college. Unbeknownst to them, half of the students attended a “difference-education” program while the other half attended a “standard” program. In both programs, newly minted first-years at an elite university listened to a diverse panel of junior and senior students talk about their transition to college, challenges they faced, and how they found success. In the difference-education program, however, panelists’ stories also included a discussion of how their social class backgrounds mattered in college. In the standard program, panelists did not reveal their social class.
We found that the difference-education program closed the achievement gap between first- and continuing-generation students. First-generation students had higher year-end grade-point averages and better learned to take advantage of college resources that could help them succeed — like seeking mentorship and extra help from professors — than their peers that participated in the standard program. An added bonus was that all students who participated in the difference-education program — both first- and continuing-generation — gained a deeper understanding of how students’ diverse backgrounds and perspectives mattered in college than their peers in the standard program. They also experienced a smoother college transition — they were less stressed, felt like they fit in socially, and were more connected to their home and school.
When we talk with educators and administrators about the success of this research, many are inspired to start a program like ours and reap the rewards; yet, they also voice trepidation. What happens if talking about social class leads students to feel threatened? What if students are not receptive to the message? What if we get accused of stereotyping or stigmatizing students because of their backgrounds?
These are understandable concerns. Talking about difference is threatening to many people, especially since Americans don’t like to talk about social class. Drawing on key insights from social psychology and multicultural education, engaging students in a conversation about how their different backgrounds matter can be instructive and empowering for all involved. But, you need to do it in the right way. Below we outline key guidelines that educators should follow:
- Show how all students can experience college differently – the success of this type of program hinges on framing it as relevant to all students, rather than as a “diversity initiative” directed only at disadvantaged students who need extra help. A unique benefit of our approach was that all students learned about how their backgrounds can shape what they experience in college. We recommend that both the senior students who share their stories and the incoming students who participate in the program are first- and continuing-generation. First, it will ensure that first-generation students do not feel “singled out” or stigmatized as students in need of extra help. Second, it will help students learn about each other’s different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. Representing difference as a normal part of the college experience — and life, more generally — is a crucial lesson in today’s increasingly diverse world.
- Start with a solid foundation — the college transition is rife with uncertainty. Our own work and that of others consistently shows that these types of transitional programs benefit students the most when they are conducted during or immediately after students’ first weeks on campus. Students’ initial social and academic experiences are the foundation upon which the rest of their experiences will be built. Give them a strong foundation right away.
- Let senior students share their own stories — incoming students need to be able to see themselves and hear their own voices reflected in the stories the older students tell. To do this, select a diverse group of students who take pride in their backgrounds and are comfortable discussing their social class (in addition to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and so on). This sends a strong signal that difference is a source of pride and strength rather than shame.
- Don’t be afraid of the negative (but offset it with the positive) — incoming students need to hear the real stuff, not an idealized version of what other students have gone through. First-generation students confront a lot of adversity during the college transition. For example, many struggle to choose a major, identify a future career path, or reconcile their life back home with their new life in college. They need to learn about the obstacles they are likely to face, but also need to understand that each obstacle is surmountable when they use the right strategies and rely on their resilience.
- Deliver a powerful (but subtle) message — we know that Americans don’t like to talk about class. We recommend giving students a subtle nudge to show them how it matters — through hearing other students’ stories — rather than telling them directly that class is something that they need to watch out for. Encourage them to think about and apply what they learn to their own lives and let them come to their own conclusions. Give students the chance to process the information and make it their own – for example, by writing an essay or making a video about what they learned to share with next year’s incoming students.
Colleges and universities have a responsibility to prepare students for success in our increasingly diverse and multicultural world. When done the right way, transitional programs have the potential to help to make this “whole new world” of higher education a less alienating, and more welcoming place, for all students — especially for those who need it the most.
Nicole M. Stephens is associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
MarYam G. Hamedani is associate director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University.
Mesmin Destin is an assistant professor in the department of psychology and the School of Education & Social Policy at Northwestern University.