Previous studies on the importance of peers have examined the
broader role that peers play in student life, often focusing on their
social influence. A new a Dartmouth study has now revealed that student friendships at college should not be underestimated, as they
can either help or hinder students academically and socially.
The study "Friends with Academic Benefits", by Janice McCabe, associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth, has been published in the current issue of Contexts
‘Student friendships at college should not be underestimated, as they can either help or hinder students academically and socially.’
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. The
research analyzes and visually maps the friendship networks of 67
students at a Midwestern university that is predominantly white, by
looking at the role that friendship groups play in a student's life and
the density of ties that he/she shares with friends. 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.
"Contrary to conventional wisdom, students are quite savvy in
recognizing that friends can distract them and in strategically using
friends to help them improve their academics. The most successful
strategies, however, differ by network type," says McCabe.
For the most part, the type of friendship networks that students had
during college remained their type after college. Tight-knitters
remained tight-knitters and compartmentalizers remained
compartmentalizers; however, most samplers became tight-knitters after
they graduated and felt more supported.
College friendships that offered both strong academic and social
ties proved to be the most enduring. Tight-knitters maintained nearly
one-third of their friendships from college while compartmentalizers and
samplers retained about a quarter of their friendships from college.