Recently, Mesmin Destin, PhD, from Northwestern University, spoke at Michigan State University on the topic of how identity connects socioeconomic status (SES) to academic outcomes, and presented his findings on low-SES middle and high school students. Destin’s research was conducted via implicit attitude tests, and based on the Identity-Based Motivation (IBM) model, which assumes identities are dynamically constructed in context. In this model, people identify situations as identity-congruent or identity-incongruent.

In the first presented experiment, Destin talked about the cost of college to low-SES, Latino and African-American seventh-grade middle school students and observed its impact. He first surveyed how they plan to pay for college: work and family help/support were the top two choices; financial aid was last on the list. After Destin explained the financial aid options to them, he found the students spent more time on schoolwork. Talking about cost of college and framing economic circumstances as something they can overcome influenced early academic engagement of the seventh graders.

In the second experiment, Destin examined the role of college-bound identity on academic outcomes. He asked eighth-grade African-American students in Detroit where they see themselves in ten years, and divided the answers into education dependent (e.g., engineer) and education independent (e.g., football player) answers. The result showed that education dependent or independent identities predicted weekly time spent on homework; education-dependent students were seven times more likely to do extra-credit work. Destin observed connecting college to future goals (college-bound identity) improved low-SES students’ academic outcomes.

When Destin combined the two parts of the field experiments, he found perceiving open path initiatives/strategies (e.g., early distribution of information on college access) and connecting college to future goals (college-bound identity) increased school motivation for low-SES middle school students.

Education-dependent future identity incentivized education for students, and they saw schoolwork as an investment for their future. Education is not necessarily seen solely as a path for future earning or identity, Destin said, but framing education as something salient to their future did change students’ behavior and choices.

Destin’s research findings have immense value for K-12 educators, especially those serving low-SES students, who may see little connection between school and their futures. These findings should encourage educators to help students explore the options and opportunities they have to pursue post-secondary institutions and help them connect higher education to a brighter future. Framing education—and going to college—as something salient to students’ future increases their academic outcomes, and students will further excel in school if what they are learning is relevant to their lives, experiences and passions. 

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