Academic Motivation Suffers When Economic Mobility Seems Out of Reach

Academic Motivation Suffers When Economic Mobility Seems Out of Reach

Alex BrowmanAlexander Browman

New studies from Northwestern University suggest that high school and college students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds are much less motivated to overcome academic hardships when they have doubts about the likelihood of people from their backgrounds achieving upward mobility.

The research extends previous work demonstrating that low-SES students who see education as a viable path to success are more inclined to do well in their educational pursuits despite the many academic barriers facing students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Our new studies show that this motivational pathway can be affected by whether or not they feel that that goal of achieving socioeconomic mobility is ultimately possible in the society in which they live,” said Alexander Browman, lead author of the studies and a recent PhD graduate in psychology from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern.

The article, “Perceptions of socioeconomic mobility influence academic persistence among low socioeconomic status students,” was recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. It was co-authored by Browman's adviser, Mesmin Destin, assistant professor of human development and social policy; Ryan Svoboda, a PhD candidate in the Human Development and Social Policy Program in the School of Education and Social Policy; and Kathleen Carswell, postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Family Enterprises Kellogg School of Management.

In three studies, the researchers either measured students’ beliefs about whether it was possible to move up in society or presented them with information that suggested that mobility was more or less likely to occur. They found that students from lower-SES backgrounds who had or were led to hold doubts about the likelihood of mobility were less inclined to persist when they faced academic difficulty.

In three studies, the researchers either measured students’ beliefs about whether it was possible to move up in society or presented them with information that suggested that mobility was more or less likely to occur. They found that students from lower-SES backgrounds who had or were led to hold doubts about the likelihood of mobility were less inclined to persist when they faced academic difficulty.

The findings suggest new potential intervention strategies for motivating students to persist when they experience difficulty at school, the authors said.

At the same time, they emphasize that their results do not imply that low-SES students who underperform do so simply because they hold misguided beliefs about mobility that can be casually corrected.

“The belief among some low-SES youth and young adults that mobility is unrealistic in their society is likely deep-seated, resulting from a lifetime of concrete experiences that cast doubt upon the plausibility that people from their background can experience mobility in that society,” Browman said.

“What this implies is that in order to promote meaningful sustained academic effort, researchers, educators, and policymakers should consider what sorts of systemic changes to the educational environment might provide these students with concrete routes to mobility that are viable for students from their backgrounds.”

By HIlary Hurd Anyaso
Last Modified: 7/20/17