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Nudges for Equity: Aligning Values in Higher Education | Psychology Today

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More students excel when they see college as a community.
Source: Naassom Azevedo/Unsplash

For the first two posts in my series “Nudges for Equity,” I shared interventions that reshape how college students of color interpret challenging or stressful events.
Growth mindsets
decouple setbacks from a student’s sense of belonging, allowing them to focus on learning rather than avoiding threat and stigma.
Challenge appraisals
promote adaptive physiological responses to difficult situations, leading to stronger academic performance. Both mindsets help students respond with resilience to the inevitable disappointments experienced in college, perspectives they hopefully carry with them after graduation.

Another way social psychologists have helped students of color navigate higher education is by reframing their environment. As campuses have become more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background, the middle-class, White values entrenched in university culture are reflected less and less by their students. Specifically, Dr. Nicole Stephens has identified interdependence as a key value held strongly by many first-generation and students of color that is less evident in the college environment compared to values of independence.

This gap between college students’ values and those of their institution is what Dr. Stephens calls a
cultural mismatch
. Whereas students of color often see education as a shared endeavor, strongly tied to their families, communities, and cultures, we often frame college as a solo journey wherein students acquire skills, knowledge, and experiences like they’re private commodities. And this mismatch has serious consequences: In a longitudinal analysis, the gap in 2nd-year cumulative GPA between students of different social classes was completely explained by first-generation students’ stronger endorsement of interdependent motives, and weaker endorsement of independent motives.

Reframing College as a Community

Dr. Stephens and colleagues have demonstrated that reframing college as a place where interdependence can flourish has profound effects on first-generation students. To be clear, these reframing exercises don’t trick students into seeing something that’s not there. Almost every college, much like almost every student, exhibits a mix of independent and interdependent values; the cultural mismatch is not an either/or problem, rather a prioritization problem. The interventions that I describe below help students—particularly first-generation students—acknowledge the interdependence that already exists on campus.

In 3 studies, first-generation students (of whom >50% identified as a student of color), read a welcome letter from their university’s president. For some, this letter described college as an opportunity to learn within a community and connect with others—an interdependent framing. For the rest, the letter highlighted college as a time to explore your personal interests and create your own intellectual journey—an independent framing.

Students who read about interdependent values solved more tangram puzzles.
Source: John Reid/Wikimedia Commons

Across studies, first-generation students had better outcomes after reading the interdependent welcome letter. For example, these students solved 27% more anagrams and 50% more tangrams in a 10-minute laboratory task, compared to first-generation students who read the independent letter. Moreover, first-generation students were significantly outperformed by their continuing-generation peers after reading the independent letter but slightly outperformed them after reading the interdependent letter.

Several mechanisms—cognitive, emotional, and physiological—might explain the deficits in performance exhibited by first-generation students who read the independent letter. First, these students construed the tangrams task as more difficult than their peers who read the interdependent letter, which mediated the impact of the letter on performance. Second, these students exhibited more negative emotions in a 5-minute speech on their college goals (a component of the
Trier Social Stress Test
). Finally, those same students who displayed more negative emotions had a significantly greater increase in salivary cortisol, a physiological marker of the “fight or flight” stress response. Together, one might imagine how a first-generation or student of color, exposed to a cue signaling the importance of independence right before an exam, could react with negative emotionality, stress, and lower self-efficacy, making performance on that exam exceedingly difficult.

Reframing College as Multicultural

Another study examined how students’ performance may be impacted by their college’s values with regard to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Students in their first semester of college read a proposed diversity statement that “conveyed that the university valued and celebrated diversity and inclusion” (p. 3). One version of the statement, however, endorsed multiculturalism (i.e., acknowledging and valuing differences), whereas the other version endorsed colorblindness (i.e., focusing on and valuing similarities). Students then did a short
self-persuasion exercise
to help them internalize the multicultural or colorblind message.

The results of this subtle, one-time reframing were, again, quite profound. Underrepresented students who read the multicultural statement earned significantly higher 2nd-year cumulative GPAs than their peers in the colorblind or control conditions. Moreover, the racial achievement gap with White and Asian students was reduced by about 75%. A term-by-term look at GPAs showed that underrepresented students already lagged behind White and Asian students in their first semester, but following the intervention slowly caught up by the end of their second spring.

Lessons Learned About College Values

It should go without saying that these interventions should not be used within a college environment that simply does not value interdependence or multiculturalism. Students will see through the ruse, and, at worst, experience a greater sense of dissonance because what they’ve been told doesn’t match with their experience. These studies, however, were conducted at universities that largely favor independent values, yet the reframing exercises still worked.

The first lesson, therefore, is to identify places where your campus already espouses these values and consider ways to increase awareness, especially among students of color. Content like welcome letters and diversity statements may be as effective in the real world as they were in Dr. Stephens’ lab, but she had the advantage of a captive audience. You may need to be more creative to make sure students see and hear the wonderful ways in which you do promote interdependent and multicultural values. For example, focus less on
aspirational targets
in your orientation for students of color and instead spotlight aspirational groups. Or celebrate more community success as opposed to individual accomplishments, on your website, in your social media, or however your students best connect to campus news.

After you’ve learned how to better demonstrate what your campus already values, consider how classes, programs, and student supports could better resonate with first-generation and students of color. For example, how might the tutoring center—a place students typically go to improve their own study skills and learning strategies—leverage peers to tap into students’ interdependent values? How can courses embrace students’ multicultural differences in a positive way—especially
STEM courses
that are often treated as “colorblind” subjects? Reevaluating how these values are conveyed in all aspects of student life could help retain more students of color. Taken together, these approaches can help increase equity in student outcomes and support your institution’s goals related to diversity and inclusion.

This content was originally published here.

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