Facebook connections may help college students boost their confidence levels and believe in their ability to excel, a new study suggests.
"We are very excited by these findings, because they suggest that the kinds of interactions supported by Facebook and other social media can play a role in helping young people, especially those who are traditionally less likely to go to college, feel more confident about their ability to get into college and to succeed there," said Nicole Ellison, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Information.
First-generation applicants might not come into contact on a daily basis with people who support their interest in college or who can answer questions about it, Ellison said.
"Our message to high school students is that even if they are disadvantaged in terms of financial resources or parental support, social media can help them access resources they may already have in their extended social networks," said D. Yvette Wohn, a doctoral student at Michigan State University and first author of the study.
The researchers surveyed more than 500 high school students in lower-income Muskegon County, Michigan.
They used statistical models to examine how various factors were correlated with the students' confidence in their ability to apply to college and their expectations of success there.
The factors they examined include demographics, family history of college attendance, parents' community involvement, and both informational and emotional support by parents, friends and Facebook connections.
To gauge how well the students understood the college application process, the survey asked participants about social media use and to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with four statements such as: "I know how to apply for financial aid" and "I know what I need to include in a college application."
Of the sample, 12 percent had used social media to get information about how to apply to school.
The researchers found that after controlling for all other factors, first-generation students who "strongly agreed" that they used social media in this way, felt 1.8 times more confident about their understanding of the application process, compared with students who did not use social media for this type of information.
This correlation didn't hold true for students whose parents had graduated from college.
To see how well the participants expected to do in school, the researchers had them rate on a scale from 1 for "strongly disagree" to 5 for "strongly agree," statements such as "I am confident that I will fit in socially in college" and "I am confident that I am able to successfully graduate from college." Overall, first-generation students reported much lower expectations, with a mean score of 2.84, compared with 4.01 for the others.
A full 70 percent of all students had a Facebook friend who either was in college or had gone and could answer questions about it. The researchers found that all else being equal, first-generation students who strongly agreed that they had this type of Facebook connection were 2.3 times more confident in their ability to succeed in school, compared with their peers who had no Facebook friend they could talk about college with.
The research has been published in the journal Computers and Education.