ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (10): 2338-2355.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.02338

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Psychological challenge and its explanation of first-generation college students: A perspective from cultural mismatch theory

LI Yusu, ZHANG Kun, BI Yanling(), ZHANG Baoshan   

  1. School of Psychology, Shaanxi Normal University, Xian 710000, China
  • Received:2020-05-07 Online:2022-10-15 Published:2022-08-24
  • Contact: BI Yanling


As a critical institution for promoting and nurturing the adequate development of college students, universities should provide equal opportunities for the growth of students from difference life circumstances. In the current higher education, first-generation college students(neither parent has a college degree) confront additional background-specific obstacles in campus adjustment, academic performance and interpersonal interactions, and they underperformed relative to non-first-generation college students (at least one parent has a college degree). Cultural mismatch theory provides an alternative explanation for the disadvantages of first-generation college students from the perspective of disparate experiences between their interdependent self-values and values of independence typical of higher education.

Cultural mismatch theory proposes that one barrier to effectively addressing social class achievement disparities in universities is the unresolved clash between two cultural norms of the individual and institution level. At the individual level, through social contexts such as family, community and school, students from different social class backgrounds develop a cultural model of self that is compatible with their class. Specifically, first-generation students, who are from lower social class backgrounds, are often dominated by an interdependent model of self. In contrast, non-first-generation students, who are from middle-and upper-class backgrounds, are more often dominated by an independent model of self. At the institution level, institutions of higher education are built and organized according to taken for granted, individualistic cultural norms represented by independence, unwritten codes. Given the variation in the models of self that students bring with them to college, and the different cultural norms they afford, students’ cultural norms can either match or mismatch the college environment.

Two models (normative well-being model and critical cultural wealth model) were introduced to better understand the effect of cultural mismatch on first-generation college students. By combining these models, we broaden and develop a more comprehensive framework from which to understand first-generation college students’ campus experiences. The framework presented here describes students’ academic performance and psychological well-being using the following four dimensions: individual personality traits, campus cultural tendencies, psychological processes and school-family conflict. These dimensions are collectively may be used as a framework to capture the academic difficulties, self-cognition, and social pressure.

Interventions informed by this theory can help first-generation college students to make sense of the source of additional challenges they face, equip them with the right kinds of tools and strategies. Interventions for mitigating social disparities in education are multifaceted and complicated, including both values affirmation intervention and difference education intervention. A common assumption in these interventions is that first-generation college students need psychological resources, including the critical insight that people who have background like theirs deserve to attend college and can thrive there. Values affirmation intervention demonstrates one key process through which motivational education improves individual self-integrity and perception of self-worth, that is, by affirming one’s core values. Difference education intervention provides first-generation college students a contextual theory from the experiences of senior students with similar backgrounds, in this format, it can improve disadvantaged students’ campus fit and academic performance.

The theory of cultural mismatch is of great theoretical significance and practical value in promoting the all-round development of university students, mitigating the achievement gap between social classes and improving the equity of current higher education. Several directions (e.g., role of personality factors, the shaping of a multiple self, advocacy for a diverse cultural environment in higher education, self-development in the face of social change, the role of unique cultural attributes) for future research are discussed.

Key words: cultural mismatch theory, first-generation college students, psychological challenge, cultural self, social class

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