Ask college students about their social life and academic life, and you’re likely to get some variation of this answer: social time is social time. Study time is study time. Keep them separate and balanced.
In reality, college student friendships are much more complicated than that.
That’s what Janice McCabe found in her decade-long study, the results of which were recently published in a book, Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success (University of Chicago Press).
Sometimes friends could be hindrances to academic success, but they often provided support too, whether students were studying in groups or encouraging each other to wake up before an 8 a.m. class.
“There was shockingly little scholarly literature about the academic role friends play in college,” McCabe said.
So she sought to find it out herself.
In 2004 and 2005, McCabe interviewed 68 students at a school she calls Midwestern University, or MU, which is a four-year public research university with 30,000 students.
Although many students were quick to claim that they kept their social and academic lives separate, when McCabe pushed them a little farther, she found that friends were actually not so separate from each other’s academic lives. They proofread one another’s papers, reminded each other of due dates, provided emotional support with affirmations like “Good luck on your exam -- you’re gonna do great,” engaged each other in intellectual discussions and motivated each other through friendly competition.
In addition, McCabe identified three categories of friendship groups: tight-knitters, compartmentalizers and samplers.
Tight-knitters generally stick to one group, and all (or almost all) of their friends know one another. Compartmentalizers have two to four clusters of friends. Lastly, samplers have friends who don’t tend to know one another because they “sample” friendships.
The majority of tight-knitters, interestingly, were black and Latino students. Over two-thirds in this group were first-generation college students. At MU -- where 85 percent of students were white, 7 percent black and only 2 percent Latino -- tight-knitters turned to this close friendship structure as a sort of counterspace where they could feel a sense of belonging instead of feeling socially marginalized.
"Students perceived support from a group of people who cared -- like a family -- as crucial in helping them deal with challenging racial experiences on campus,'" McCabe wrote.
This sort of friendship structure can be a double-edged sword. Students who had friends that had what McCabe called “academic multiplex ties” -- or friends who provided academic support in different ways -- tended to perform better academically. However, if tight-knitters did not have friends who motivated them to finish their classwork or study for tests, that could be detrimental to their grades.
Compartmentalizers also belong to close friendship groups, but unlike tight-knitters, they belong to multiple groups. A compartmentalizer may have her sorority sisters in one group, friends from her program of study in another and choir friends in the last group.
Students in this group tended to be the most academically successful. That’s because different friend clusters provided different forms of support -- one cluster tended to be a crux for academic support, while another was reserved for social support.
Finally, samplers had friends that were unconnected to each other. Students in this group were unique; if they achieved academic success, they tended to do it on their own, without the help of their friends. And samplers did do well academically. Most earned a B average.
"On the one hand, this shows that friends are not necessary for academic success. On the other hand, this raises the question, could samplers be even more successful if they allowed their friends to be friends with academic benefits?" McCabe wrote.
McCabe also followed up with these students years later, after they had graduated. She found that her participants didn't keep in touch with the majority of friends they made in college. But friendship network types shifted, suggesting that although McCabe's research focused on a snapshot of these students' lives, the friendship networks are dynamic and change over time.
In her research published in the book, McCabe only interviewed students at MU. But McCabe is now working on a new project, where she’s speaking to students at a private college and a community college to explore whether there are institutional variations in these friendship structures.
"One of my hopes with this project is that people will take friendship seriously, and that they'll look at their relationships more seriously, too," McCabe said.
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