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Posted at 03:46 AM ET, 04/26/2012

Is college too much me, too little us?

I went to college all by myself. I took a bus from my Bay Area home to downtown Los Angeles, then a bus to Occidental College. I loved going off on my own.

I was in tune with higher education culture then and now. U.S. colleges and universities emphasize independent thought and action. But a new study suggests that this attitude might be hindering the adjustment of students who are the first in their families to attend four-year schools.

“Universities’ focus on independence does not match the first-generation students’ relatively interdependent motives for attending college,” said the study by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “This cultural mismatch is associated with lower grades.”

Many organizations devoted to preparing low-income students for college find even their star students sometimes struggle when they arrive on campus. They seem to suffer from social isolation, financial troubles and no college-savvy family members to lend support. To that list we might have to add colleges unintentionally making the situation worse by pushing a do-it-yourself philosophy at odds with the equally valid but different values of first-generation students.

“Many students from working-class families are influenced by limited financial resources and lack an economic safety net, and thus must rely on family and friends for support,” Nicole Stephens, lead author of the study and assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, said on the school’s Web site.

“Thus, these students’ expectations for college center around interdependent motives such as working together, connecting to others and giving back,” she said. “Given the largely independent college culture and the ways in which students’ social class backgrounds shape their motives for attending college, we questioned whether universities provide students from these different backgrounds with equal chance of success.”

The researchers verified the universities’ go-it-alone slant by giving a sampling of administrators six pairs of institutional expectations and asking them to select the ones that reflected their cultures. More than two-thirds valued skills such as “learn to work independently” over “learn to work together with others.”

The researchers experimented with a version of the stereotype threat studies that have shown blacks doing worse on exams preceded by suggestions that their race is a handicap. In their test, first-generation students scored lower than peers from college families when the importance of independence was emphasized but did just as well when interdependency was praised.

What should be done about this? Some colleges have embraced programs such as Posse that admit groups of first-generation students who arrive on campus with other freshmen they already know and who share their cultures.

The Kellogg researchers say colleges could do more. They could mention the virtues of interdependency in admission letters. They could help professors learn to encourage collaboration. They could increase opportunities for study groups and faculty-student chats.

In college, I had little interest in fraternities. But they fill a void on campuses full of strivers who yearn for places they can relax with people who understand them. We are a tribal species, no matter if we are the first in our family to go to college or, like me, had a mother and a grandfather with degrees. My college years had an erratic start, saved only by my joining a student newspaper.

The Kellogg research is just one study. Some parts of it seem iffy to me. But I have known brilliant inner-city kids with full scholarships who chose a local university rather than an Ivy League school because of similar culture clashes.

Colleges should continue to promote individualism. That’s part of our nation. But so is working together to solve our problems.

By  |  03:46 AM ET, 04/26/2012

 
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