Updated 5 months, 3 weeks ago

How friendship networks at college impact students' academic, social success

Student friendships at college should not be underestimated, as they can either help or hinder students academically and socially, according to a Dartmouth study "Friends with Academic Benefits," published in the current issue of Contexts.

Previous studies on the importance of peers have examined the broader role that peers play in student life, often focusing on their social influence, whereas, this study examines: individual friendships at college, how students benefit academically and socially from such networks, and how such networks reflect a student's race and class.

This new study by Dartmouth College in the US examines individual friendships at college, how students benefit academically and socially from such networks, and how such networks reflect a student's race and class.

Janice McCabe, an associate professor of sociology, interviewed a diverse group of 67 students. She asked them to name their friends, which ranged from 3 to 60 individuals, and then she painstakingly mapped out the web of connections that made up each person's friend network.

Her conclusion? "It's important to realize that friends can have academic as well as social benefits." And the type of network you have matters a lot.

McCabe finds that student friendships can be classified into three types of networks: tight-knitters, samplers and compartmentalizers.

Tight-knitters have one dense group of friends, where nearly everyone knows each other, and their network resembles a ball of yarn. Most of the tight-knitters were students of color (Black or Latino). Tight-knitters referred to their friends as family and relied on each other socially. Academically, their friends could also be supportive and helpful. However, they also had the potential to pull each other down academically, if they lacked academic skills and motivation. The potential for such negative influence reproduced race- and class-based inequalities.

Compartmentalizers have two to four clusters of friends, who do not know each other, and their network resembles a bow tie. Compartmentalizers had separate clusters of friends: one or more for studying and one or more for having fun, with a good balance between the two. They tended to be white and from the middle class, and relied less on their friends to succeed in college than tight-knitters. In addition to having academic and social clusters of friends, Black and Latino compartmentalizers also had a cluster of friends that helped them with race- or class-based marginality.

Samplers have one-on-one friendships rather than groups of friends, with friends from different places remaining unconnected to each other, and their network resembles a daisy. Samplers were independent and did not rely on their friends for a sense of belonging; they were often socially isolated. They were academically successful without the help of their friends. Samplers came from a range of race and class backgrounds.

Basing her study on in-depth interviews, McCabe discovered that above all, students seek a good balance between their academic and social lives. The lines may often blur, but that can be to the good: Students check in with friends when they have a paper due, they study together and quiz each other, and they help each other blow off steam when the work is done.

Instead of looking at proxy measures, like involvement in extracurricular, she suggests that administrators could get a better view of how to help students succeed by understanding all the roles strong friendships play. "They can be ties keeping students in and committed and helping them do well and helping them feel like a whole person too."

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