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USC Marshall’s Townsend: Here’s How to Break Through the Class Ceiling

USC Marshall Professor Sarah Townsend is P&Q’s Professor of the Week

As colleges and universities admit more first-generation students and students from historically underserved minority and working-class families, many of them find it challenging to meet college’s more rigorous academic demands. But they may find it even more difficult to handle the “culture shock” at institutions whose norms and values may be very different from the ones in which they were raised.

This “cultural mismatch” is the subject of three recent papers by Poets&Quants’ Professor of the Week, Sarah S.M. Townsend of the USC Marshall School of Business. The studies, whose co-authors include Nicole M. Stephens of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University; MarYam G. Hamedani of Stanford University; Stephanie Smallets, whose research was conducted while she was a Ph.D. candidate at USC Marshall (she is now a senior analyst at McKinsey & Company), and Kellogg Ph.D. candidate Andrea G. Dittman, analyzed the problem and experimentally tested some solutions. The papers were all published in peer-reviewed journals.

“The culture of American higher education, especially at elite colleges and universities, reflects and promotes assumptions about what it means to be ‘smart,’ ‘educated,’ and ‘successful,’” Townsend and her co-authors write. These assumptions, they argue, are “powerfully shaped by White, middle- to upper-class beliefs, norms, and values…As a result, students of color and those from low-income or working-class backgrounds often feel excluded in these educational settings, which can lead them to question whether they fit or belong in college.”

These students “can also be unfamiliar with the ‘rules of the game’ needed to succeed in higher education, which can undermine their sense of empowerment and efficacy,” the researchers continue. “These psychological challenges work alongside disparities in resources and pre-college preparation to fuel a persistent achievement gap between these students and their advantaged peers.”

Many of these students attended secondary schools less competitive than the top public and private high schools from which their peers graduated. But an even bigger challenge may be what Townsend and co-authors call “the cultural mismatch between the independent norms prevalent in middle-class contexts and U.S. institutions and the interdependent norms common in working-class contexts.”

This culture clash, they explain, is essentially a conflict of world views. Working-class communities, Townsend and her co-authors note, “foster interdependence because they provide fewer financial resources, greater environmental constraints, lower power and status, and fewer opportunities for choice, influence, and control than middle-class contexts.” 

By contrast, middle- and upper-class communities “foster independence because they provide greater access to economic capital, fewer environmental constraints, higher power and status, and greater opportunities for choice, influence, and control than do working-class contexts…,” the researchers hypothesize. 

Colleges and universities “tend to prioritize independence as the cultural ideal,” Townsend and her co-authors observe. “In higher education, an independent model of self often guides administrators’ and educators’ assumptions about how students should be motivated, learn, and interact with others.”

So, how can universities help students from minority and working-class communities overcome the cultural mismatch and succeed both academically and personally? Some have launched pre-college summer programs for admitted students from these backgrounds to bolster their academic and social skills amid a supportive peer group. 

Townsend and the other researchers also recommend teaching all students the different backgrounds and “contexts” from which different groups of students emerged.  That would help raise everybody’s level of understanding and create an environment in which the underrepresented feel less marginalized. 

Specifically, Townsend, Stephens, Smallet, and Hamedani tested online “difference-education” programs, which taught students that being different is “a normal part of having different prior experiences and coming from different contexts and need not be negative or isolating but can be positive and serve as an asset,” the authors write. Their preliminary results echoed earlier studies in which “difference-education intervention has been shown to close the academic performance gap between first-generation and continuing-generation students.”

Townsend, 39, is the Kenneth King Stonier Assistant Professor of Business Administration at USC Marshall. Her research focuses on how differences in class, race, and gender play into “cultural divides” in organizations and how those divides can be both sources of and solutions to different forms of inequality.

Townsend teaches Organizational Behavior and Leadership to undergraduates and will begin teaching the class to full-time MBA students next year. She also teaches a session on the science of bias, diversity, and inclusion to executives.

She got her BA and MA from Stanford in psychology and a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Following postdoctoral research at Kellogg, she joined the Marshall faculty in 2013 and has taught there ever since. 

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