The push to reveal higher ed’s ‘hidden curriculum’

Hoping to call attention to the “hidden curriculum” on college campuses, LAist recently kicked off a new series showing how first-generation students are navigating the unspoken expectations of higher education.

Related: Georgetown course helps first-gen students master ‘the hidden curriculum’ >

Unlike students whose parents attended college, first-generation students and those from other groups historically underrepresented in higher education often have little exposure to or context for the college experience. College graduates interviewed by LAist, for instance, recalled that they wished someone had told them that attending an out-of-state university was a possibility. They remember being unaware they had the option to drop and add classes—and confused about the purpose of professors’ “office hours.”

“The hidden curriculum is the rules of the game that some people get the rulebook for and some other people don’t,” says Aireale Rodgers, a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California whose work focuses on equity in higher education. Starting college without that foundation can be especially tricky for students who may have “some self doubt already,” notes La’Tonya Rease Miles, who has helped create programs for first-gen students at the University of California Los Angeles and Loyola Marymount University.

Speaking about her own experience as a first-gen student, Rease Miles says there can be “high expectations from the family”—pressure that “can preclude people from asking questions.”

Speaking the unspoken expectations

Recognizing that the hidden curriculum can make it difficult for students to feel a sense of belonging on campus and to fully participate in the college experience, institutions are working to shed light on hidden expectations and connect students with crucial resources.

UC Irvine, for instance, has created an orientation scavenger hunt for first-generation students that asks them to locate key campus functions, such as the advising office. Others have created programs specifically for parents of first-generation students, so they have better visibility into their children’s college experience.

How Georgetown students ‘master the hidden curriculum’

Georgetown University since fall 2018 has offered a course designed to ease first-generation and/or low-income students’ transition to college. The course articulates the opportunities and challenges those students face; encourages conversations about power and inequality; and connects students with resources to support their success.

Titled “Mastering the Hidden Curriculum,” the 12-week, pass/fail course is the result of collaboration between the Georgetown Scholars Program, which provides programmatic support to more than 650 first-generation and low-income undergraduate students, and Georgetown’s Designing the Future(s) initiative, which aims to accelerate educational innovation in pursuit of equity and efficacy.

As Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University who helped create the course, described in a 2018 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the course covers topics such as cultural capital, impostor syndrome, effective communication, and faculty expectations. First-year students participating in the course also learn how to cultivate relationships, seize opportunities, and advocate on their own behalf.

The course addresses “the kind of issues not mentioned in the student handbook,” Chatelain wrote, adding that one of the goals is to show students “that another higher education is possible, one in which a parent’s alumni status or connections or wealth are not the only ways to realize success.”

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