Disadvantaged college students perform better when aware of upcoming challenges, study shows

Anusha Lalani

Disadvantaged college students are more likely to perform better in school when they are aware of the obstacles they may face, according to a recently published study.

The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was based on research led by UT assistant professor David Yeager. Students of color and first-generation students that are more aware of the difficulties they might face are more likely to become involved on campus, have better relationships with others and succeed at a higher rate, Yeager said.

Greg Walton, associate professor of psychology at Stanford and co-author of the study, said these incoming students have a hard time transitioning into college because they believe the difficulties they face are not normal. The challenges these students face primarily deal with academics and social life. According to the study, disadvantaged students tend to have lower GPAs than their advantaged peers and they don’t know how to reach out for help through campus organizations.

“One of the problems is that even when you experience something that is normal, like feeling lonely in the first year in college …  if you know that people like you haven’t gone to college before or know that you could experience negative stereotypes then it can seem that those difficulties are not normal but say something about you or your group — maybe that you don’t belong,” Walton wrote in an email.

The study involved three randomized controlled trials that presented incoming students with stories from older students discussing academic and social problems they faced when coming to college. In the stories, the older students explained that these hardships are normal and will subside over time. Once the stories were shared, the incoming students were asked to reflect on which challenges they expected to encounter and why these circumstances are normal for every new college student.

Because the methods used in the study proved successful — the gaps in full-time enrollment and grades between students from disadvantaged backgrounds and other students improved from 31 to 40 percent in a sample of 9,500 students — all incoming UT students are required to go through this online assessment before they begin school.

Yeager said these disadvantaged students recognize these difficulties at an earlier age than their advantaged peers.

“By fifth grade, in most studies, 100 percent of African-American students were aware of negative stereotypes of their group,” Yeager said. “For white students, they become aware of stereotypes of other groups much later, so like eighth grade.”

Government junior Joanna Perez, who is a first-generation college student, said her transition to UT was difficult but that she made it through her first year with the help of friends and by joining organizations on campus.

“Factoring in the difficulty of the classes and failing my first exams, I felt lonely and lost for the first year of college,” Perez said. “[But I] kept reminding myself that I was going to a great university that would allow me to achieve whatever goals I placed for myself.”