For the one in six who are first-generation students at four-year colleges in the U.S., there are “unseen disadvantages” built into the system of higher education. In a forthcoming study to be featured in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Stephanie A. Fryberg (University of Arizona), Hazel Markus (Stanford), Camille S. Johnson (San Jose State University), and Rebecca Covarrubias (UA) explain how university norms that promote individualism and self-expression (memes like “express yourself,” “be a leader,” and “find your own path”) are values that resonate predominantly with middle- and upper-class students in search of independence. In contrast, many first-generation students who tend to come from working-class backgrounds see themselves as interdependent parts of their communities and families. They often have very different motives for attending college and view it instead as a way of helping their families and serving as role models to their communities. The researchers found that a cultural mismatch between the more community-related motives of first-generation students and a university’s culture that emphasized independence and self-expression predicted worse grades for students during their first two years.

This is especially fascinating in light of my last blog about moments of transition and the dearth of on- and off-ramps in higher education. One of the major pain points in postsecondary education is the moment that actually precedes a student’s even stepping foot in a college classroom: that threshold between 12th grade and college. While our society is ever centered on college access, completion, and student retention rates, we do not spend enough time talking about this very crucial point of transition.

Part of the problem is that our educational system lacks a solid mechanism to help inform students that they are actually “hiring” higher education to perform certain “jobs to be done.” Again, the premise of jobs to be done is simple: customers don’t just buy products or services; they hire them to do a job. As the great marketing professor Theodore Levitt taught, “The customer doesn’t want a quarter-inch drill. He wants a quarter-inch hole!” A single product or service can do multiple jobs depending on who is hiring it.

University presidents, administrators, and academics believe they know why students are hiring their particular institutions, but as the aforementioned study illustrates, the selling points of institutions may betray cultural norms that do not align well with specific student populations. At the same time, students unfortunately often have no idea that they are first of all “hiring” the institution to do jobs for them—not to mention that they should be prioritizing cultural fit. This study suggests that the jobs to be done for first-generation students appear to center on jobs like learning to do collaborative research and learning to be a team player.

Identifying the right jobs to be done is crucial. It is why I harbor some doubts as to whether the popular topic of “undermatching” is necessarily a bad thing. When President Obama highlighted the work of economists Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner who reported that students from the bottom quartile of the income distribution for families—high-achieving, low-income students—tended to apply to non-selective schools when they could have in fact been applying to elite schools, undermatching was widely publicized as students missing out on an incredible good. Indeed, the numbers seemed to speak for themselves: compared to the 34 percent of high-achieving, high-income students who apply to selective institutions only 17 percent of the high-achieving, low-income students go for more selective colleges.

This seems like an obvious problem: students not accessing better schools that invest more in instructional expenditures and match the students’ full potential; at the same time, the same students are missing out on the social capital benefits that come with being part of a network of other elite, high-achieving students. But because significant resources are not invested in the threshold between senior year in high school and the first year of college, what we call undermatching is not necessarily the wrong choice.

Even if students were to choose the more selective experience, they might find themselves floundering, lacking the necessary support to manage the challenging transition into a higher-tiered school. Is it always better for a student to choose a more selective institution when there is no infrastructure to facilitate the on-ramp to college? Paul Tough’s New York Times Magazine article illuminated the robust kinds of mentorship networks and interventions that David Laude and David Yeager orchestrated at the University of Texas at Austin to help students make it through the culture shock of this major transition. Such support requires serious infrastructure on campus. Otherwise, the statistics continue to affirm Tough’s blunt statement: “Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t…About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.”

The social class achievement gap is real, and students from working-class backgrounds struggle with simple things like asking for help or how not to be intimidated by the way others comport themselves in a discussion section. If the “better” institution has no support network in place, obstacles can accumulate, ultimately threaten the student, and make her believe she is unfit college material.

The job to be done is crucial to identify: Was that student hiring the “better” institution to be the first in her family to get a degree from a great institution, or was she hiring that institution to be the first in her family to get a college degree? The distinction is important, as undermatching with a less selective institution that actually matched her cultural capital oddly might have given her the confidence to achieve, persist, and complete her degree.

This provocative study should push universities to think critically about why students “hire” them for higher education. Moreover, until we can invest enough energy and resources into the crucial transition that precedes the first moments in a college classroom, we’ll always be treating the symptoms—not the cause—of some of our thorniest problems in higher education.


  • Michelle R. Weise, PhD
    Michelle R. Weise, PhD