Close friends are important drivers of adolescent behavior, including college attendance, according to Steven Alvarado, assistant professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences.
In new research published March 4 in American Educational Research Journal, Alvarado reports that having college-bound friends increases the likelihood that a student will enroll in college. However, the effect of having college-bound friends is diminished for Black and Latino students compared with white and Asian students, especially for males and especially for selective and highly selective colleges, due to structural and cultural processes.
“Black and Latino students certainly reap some benefits from having college-bound friends in high school,” Alvarado said, “but the benefits are not as widespread for these students as they are for white and Asian students when it comes to college enrollment.”
Black and Latino students demonstrate a clear and persistent disparity in their college enrollment rates relative to their white and Asian counterparts, Alvarado wrote, citing a 2020 study by the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics. In 2018, the college enrollment rate was 59% for Asian young adults and 42% for white young adults; the rates were 36% for Latino young adults and 37% for Black young adults.
Alvarado said he has long been fascinated by the idea that placing disadvantaged and minority students in higher socioeconomic and achievement settings can help them excel in school. This study is part of a series of research papers that test whether having friends who plan to go to college is associated with college-going behavior.
“Friends may directly encourage and motivate one another to study hard, focus and remain on a college path throughout high school,” Alvarado wrote. “Friends also provide companionship and camaraderie that may ease the oftentimes isolating academic path to college during adolescence.”
However, Alvarado said, the key question is: Do friends influence college-going behavior, or are college-going students already internally motivated to go, regardless of their friends’ input?
To quantify how much friendship influences college enrollment for specific groups, Alvarado analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education’s High School Longitudinal Study of 2009, a nationally representative survey of approximately 24,000 students who were followed and surveyed through college.
This survey asked students in 11th grade: “How many of your close friends plan to attend a four-year college?”
Alvarado found that for all students combined, having college-bound friends increased the probability of enrolling in any college by 6 percentage points. Yet, Black and Latino students benefited less than white and Asian students. The diminishment of benefit was starker for male students than female and as the colleges became more selective.
Alvarado theorized in the paper that structural and cultural forces mitigate the influence of friendship for Black and Latino males.
Alvarado wrote that Black and Latino students often internalize negative stereotypes from the wider society about their educational ability. They may also reject an educational system that often marginalizes them. In these ways, both the supply of and the demand for college-bound friends may be diminished by structural discrimination that Black and Latino students deal with every day.
The college-leaning influence of friends may also be tempered among Black and Latino students who grow up in communities that value family above the individual – a dynamic active in Latino immigrant communities and Black communities, as well, Alvarado wrote.
Among the potentially effective strategies for improving college enrollment rates for Black and Latino students is for schools to think of ways to better incorporate Black and Latino families in the college-going process, he said.
“Friendships,” Alvarado said, “perhaps when combined with a culturally sensitive approach to college-going, may be one essential piece of the puzzle that is necessary to ameliorate racial and ethnic disparities in college enrollment.”
Kate Blackwood is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.