Sometimes the most basic functions of higher education are missed or ignored. Take, for example, the influence of friendships on college students. We all know that friends matter greatly to the college experience. Talk with a college graduate and more often than not, their best friends for life are college friends. People meet their spouses in college. Colleges are extremely important vehicles for the development of lifelong peer groups and friends. But how do students make and maintain friends in college?
Janice M. McCabe, a professor of sociology at Dartmouth, has provided an insightful investigation in Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success. A reworking of her dissertation, the book is based on a rigorous longitudinal mixed methods study of students and their friendship networks at a large Midwestern public university. It has all the strengths of a good dissertation: solid review of relevant scholarship, strong attention to detail, thoughtfully crafted hypotheses and qualified conclusions. McCabe adds something else, though, that sets her work apart: a section on recommendations for college faculty and administrators. Her research has relevance and the potential of improving the student experience.
Informing her study is the history of research on the importance of peers to academic success. Friendship studies have tended to focus on outcomes, not the structure of friendships. McCabe’s work is different. She tracked the friendship networks of students, using network analysis to visualize patterns of connectivity. McCabe proposes three suggestive models (tight-knitters, compartmentalizers, samplers) to help understand ways of making sense of individual students at particular institutions. She is interested in social and academic dynamics.
Tight-knitter types are at the center of a network of closely connected friends. Friends know friends. The students in the study who had tight-knit networks tended to be Black and Latino/a. Friends were socially strong and supportive. These groups were difficult to exit, had success with academic multiplex ties, but were often groups of less academically focused students. By “multiplex,” McCabe means at least two of three kinds of assistance: intellectual, instrumental, or emotional.
Compartmentalizers have different kinds of networks – they have clusters of friends. Whiter, more middle class and more female, the compartmentalizers benefited from moderate levels of social support. Juggling groups of friends was sometimes a challenge, but this group also was more successful because of relatively high levels of academic and multiplex support.
Samplers are close to individual friends, not networks of friends. They are at higher risk of disconnection. Their support networks were thinner and more varied. Samplers were also diverse in terms of ethnicity, class and gender. When samplers succeeded in college, they tended to do it on their own. Samplers are more independent.
McCabe’s research and interviews turned up some interesting phenomenon. Almost every student considered their friendships through a lens of balance: trying to figure out the right degree of socializing and work and why. These “testimonies of balance” and corresponding “testimonies of imbalance” (the cautionary tales) framed how students think about their network of peers. It made me wonder, too, if that lens of balance extends beyond college into how we talk about the balance of work and family. Race, class and gender, unsurprisingly, factor into how students think about friendships. McCabe argues that her models are a more valuable measure of analysis than straightforward race, class and gender categorization.
What this means for those of us who work in colleges is that the advice student affairs professionals regularly give – get involved, find a balance, structure and manage time – is the healthiest way for college students to live as engaged students. Since colleges cannot predict what kinds of networks students will build, McCabe encourages institutions to implement multiple initiatives to get students to connect with each other. These will take time, she advises, but should pay off in happier and more engaged students. She notes that successful group of students must have regular contact with each other and shared collaborative projects. She also cautions against permitting any strong status hierarchy between groups or communities. In other words, try to make sure that social capital is equitably distributed among student groups and organizations. These are all reasonable aims for a student services unit. The right physical spaces, organizational structure, and project (service learning, for example) can greatly aid friendship network development.
McCabe does not advocate the removal of Greek life because of the sense of belonging that it can give its members. She admits, though, that the difficulties that can result from fraternities and sororities can be serious. She cautions institutions from relying too heavily on online classes, which do not facilitate friendships. McCabe also makes several suggestions about how colleges can assign roommates and socialize entering students into building strong friendship networks. McCabe has a number of suggestions for faculty members, too. She underscores the value of meaningful group work to friendship development. Her research indicates that the development of the right sort of social friendships and networks will improve students’ experiences and success, making for a stronger college.
Perhaps the most provocative effect of McCabe’s work is the way that it integrates our thinking about student learning and success. Many posit students as independent actors working their way through an academic institution. The real give-and-take is more complicated. Most college students live, learn and work in a swirl of relationships.
It is increasingly common as a recruitment and student success tool for colleges to highlight the connections that an institution can offer graduates for job placement and career advancement. We already promote social networking. The next step is to be more thoughtful about social networking within college. Peers and friends are extremely important to how students learn and experience college. All of us who work in colleges and universities can make this part of our effort.
Ask a college graduate what they remember most distinctly about their time in higher education. They may tell you about what they learned in their literature classes, what it was like to study in the library, or time in the laboratory. I would wager, though, that more likely or not you would hear the most about their friends. Bottom line – McCabe’s work makes good sense.