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.
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.
- 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.