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Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success

reviewed by Dawn Person - June 08, 2017

coverTitle: Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success
Author(s): Janice M. McCabe
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022640952X, Pages: 216, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com


The author investigates and describes social networks as pathways students engage in to navigate and negotiate their college experience. The details of these friendship networks include who participates and to what end. The degree to which these networks support student success presents differently for students depending upon race, gender, and socioeconomic-class. Reading Connecting in College will have you analyzing your college experience as well as your friendship networks, reflecting on how these friendship networks supported your college outcomes and continued to shape your life beyond college.

Overall, the book offers an in-depth examination of three types of friendship networks identified in McCabe’s analyses of a college campus study conducted over a five-year period, considering both structure and content of networks relative to student success. The purpose of the book as reported by McCabe was to "examine the types of friendship networks students form, who forms which types, what academic and social outcomes are attached to each type, and how they affect students after college" (p. 5). McCabe follows students throughout their four years of college and beyond. Her findings describe three overarching networks: tight-knitters, compartmentalizers, and samplers. The author begins this work by emphasizing how students from diverse backgrounds experience social networks differently and for different purposes. They seek meaning in their friendship networks in varied ways.

McCabe provides an intriguing examination of what occurs below the surface of student interactions and considers friendship networks in light of college student cultures, institutional environments, and boundaries. She offers recommendations for campus leaders, faculty, student affairs educators, students, and parents to consider in understanding how students navigate college through friendship networks. Her findings include long-term implications on both college outcomes, and life beyond college. She suggests that colleges and universities can improve supporting diverse students by developing a more inclusive environment for friendship networks. This book illuminates what happens below the surface on our college campuses and it is highly recommended to any educator hoping to make a difference in supporting student success and campus life. An overview of the book will be offered, along with some reflective comments about the author's conclusions and recommendations for practice.

In Chapters One and Two, the author takes on the complex challenge of considering the influence of race, ethnicity, and gender as key factors of friendship building blocks. The author found the greatest difference in friendship structure to be in race (p. 37), and the least difference in gender. These findings suggest that the college environment plays a role in how students network based on their sense of connection with others like them (critical mass) and a pervasive minority status (lack of a critical mass), which leads some students to feel isolated (p. 38). Students with varying social class also have different college experiences than their peers, and the author discusses the intersection of race and class on friendship patterns. She comments on unique findings in her research relative to class and the size of friendship groups, and offers explanations for less differences in size of networks by class. She concludes that the number in each network may vary less so than the language used to describe these friendships by participants when class status is considered (p. 33).

McCabe makes a strong argument for stakeholders to understand the power of friendship groups for academic and social integration, and how peers influence these important aspects of a student's life in college. She addresses the "balance and imbalance of friendship" relative to social and academic pursuits in college (p. 64). Students reported friends being both a help and hindrance to their progression, and sometimes both simultaneously. Both balance and imbalance are highly valued by students and they do not view them as a choice of one or the other. These findings demonstrate the powerfulness of peers in the educational process.

In Chapters Three through Five, the author dedicates a chapter to each friendship network from her research findings that were introduced at the beginning of the book. She meticulously describes the structure and content of these friendship groups by revealing who participates in each network, including students' race, gender, and class, members' academic and social outcomes within group differences and similarities, as well as behaviors relative to academic and social supports. She compares her findings to previous research pointing out comparable findings and points of departure. She also offers suggestions for future research that emerge from these analyses.

In Chapter Three, the tight-knitters were described as "students with one densely woven friendship network" (p. 66). Most were first-generation Black and Latino low-income or middle class (p. 76). The author contrasts two students from this network type; one who did and one who did not meet their academic goal of college graduation. Chapter Four provides insights about the compartmentalizers, who have “multiple friendship groups with varied patterns and outcomes” (p. 66). Compartmentalizers are said to be the friendship type keeping their lives organized and well balanced. In particular, a compartmentalizer has subgroups of friendships in their network, rarely interacting with other subgroups to have a balanced lifestyle. For example, a compartmentalizer may have the subgroups of friends from their fraternity, family, close friend group, classroom, work, etc.

Students of color and lower SES backgrounds belonged to the second network type, which was the "compartmentalizers with segmented academic involvement along with academic multiplex ties" (p. 115), the most complex cluster. These networks are viewed as safest for the participants in that they are appealing for academic engagement and social networking to support a more balanced existence (p. 116). The GPA data revealed most compartmentalizers are successful in school and even lower academic achieving compartmentalizer students have fairly strong grades (p. 96).

The final network is the sampler network described in Chapter Five. Samplers are “those with friends with few connections to each other” (p.66). Samplers experience social and academic isolation and feel somewhat marginalized and lonely. They perform strongly in academic, work, and often reside on campus. They were the most diverse in race, gender, and class (p.121). Parents provided critical support to these students. Administrators are warned to guard against perceiving these students as socially and academically integrated (p.138).

Finally, in Chapter Six, the author explores friendships after college. Samplers and tight-knitters merged into one network type (p159). Network types reduced over time from three to two that included tight-knitters and samplers together and compartmentalizers (p. 159). In general, friendship after college lasted when student networks were part of academic multiplex ties in college (p. 159).

College context is the overall important factor to examine when utilizing the data in this book. The college context creates an environment that determines how inclusive, just, and equitable the environment is to students. The author makes some key recommendations throughout the book and particularly at the end to respond to the urgency most students need to be successful in college. Colleges must work to create opportunities for inclusive friendship culture through regular contact, shared physical spaces, collaborative projects, multiple campus communities and Greek life, and develop pedagogical practices that connect students to each other in online courses, residence hall room assignments, diverse enrollment, group project infrastructure, and campus communities (p. 165-176). This overall inclusive culture includes well-informed staff to educate students and parents.

This work is based on the author's cumulative professional endeavors that span over a decade as a sociologist. The author is convincing in sharing that this work is complex, however, she limits her findings to only three different friendship networks, providing convincing evidence of the complexity of these networks in scope and depth. While she challenges the reader to consider how we define college success, she does not speak to the many other underlying factors such as financial support, community cultural wealth, resilience, motivation, and other limitations contributing to student success or lack thereof. The author discusses the possibility of friendship networks changing over time without a deeper discussion of the cause or process. I recommend this book to educators and parents of college-bound high school students, as it will open the reader's eyes to the complex web of the networks of students and student culture on college campuses.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 08, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22022, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 9:56:00 AM

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About the Author
  • Dawn Person
    California State University, Fullerton
    E-mail Author
    DAWN PERSON is Professor of Educational Leadership at California State University, Fullerton where she serves as Coordinator of the Community College, Higher Education Specialization for the Educational Doctorate. She also serves as the Director of the Center for Research on Educational Access and Leadership, a solution-focused data-driven research center that serves community partners in Los Angeles County and Orange County as well as national and international associates committed to issues of educational leadership and student achievement. Dawn currently is an evaluator for a grant focusing on creating a college culture in underserved high schools through a federally funded intervention, GEAR UP. She also coordinates a national blueprint project on men of color at community colleges with the American Association of Community Collegesí Presidentsí Round Table. Her earlier work is focused on student cultures for students of color. Her most recent publications focus on supplemental instruction as a tool for student success, cohort-based learning at the doctoral level for women in leadership, developing a college-going culture, and resiliency in students of color and specifically, men of color at the community college level.
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