Friends with Academic Benefits

The new or interesting story isn’t just that Valerie, Betsy, and Steve’s friends had different social and academic impacts, but that they had various types of friendship networks. My research points to the importance of network structure—that is, the relationships among their friends—for college students’ success. Different network structures result from students’ experiences—such as race- and class-based marginalization on this predominantly White campus—and shape students’ experiences by helping or hindering them academically and socially.

I used social network techniques to analyze the friendship networks of 67 MU students and found they clumped into three distinctive types—tight-knitters, compartmentalizers, and samplers. Tight-knitters have one densely woven friendship group in which nearly all their friends are friends with one another. Compartmentalizers’ friends form two to four clusters, where friends know each other within clusters but rarely across them. And samplers make a friend or two from a variety of places, but the friends remain unconnected to each other. As shown in the figures, tight-knitters’ networks resemble a ball of yarn, compartmentalizers’ a bow-tie, and samplers’ a daisy. In these network maps, the person I interviewed is at the center and every other dot represents a friend, with lines representing connections among friends (that is, whether the person I interviewed believed that the two people knew each other). During the interviews, participants defined what friendship meant to them and listed as many friends as they liked (ranging from three to 45).

The students’ friendship network types influenced how friends matter for their academic and social successes and failures. Like Valerie, most Black and Latina/o students were tight-knitters. Their dense friendship networks provided a sense of home as a minority on a predominantly White campus. Tight-knit networks could provide academic support and motivation (as they did for Valerie) or pull students down academically if their friends lacked academic skills and motivation. Most White students were compartmentalizers like Betsy, and they succeeded with moderate levels of social support from friends and with social support and academic support from different clusters. Samplers came from a range of class and race backgrounds. Like Steve, samplers typically succeeded academically without relying on their friends. Friends were fun people who neither help nor hurt them academically. Socially, however, samplers reported feeling lonely and lacking social support….(More)”.