Breaking Barriers: Unraveling First-Generation Students’ Social Networks for Success

Reference: Wittner, B., Barthauer, L., & Kauffeld, S. (2023). Accessibility and mobilisation of social capital in first-generation students’ social networks—A mixed-methods approach. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 25(2), 254–278.

Summarized By: Ariel Ervin

About the Study

First-generation college students are an underrepresented population who are less likely to start a degree program and are more likely to drop out than their peers with academic parents. A lack of social support* is a significant contributor to this disparity. However, while empirical evidence highlights the lack of social support first-generation students have in achieving success in higher education, differences between first-generation and non-first-generation students vary in terms of social capital and social support. This mixed methods study evaluates first-generation students’ social networks to understand the sources and forms of support they receive. Findings from the qualitative component, consisting of qualitative interview material and qualitative social network analysis, were combined with psychometric scales that measured perceived support and outcomes about academic success. The researchers then used the results to identify different types of socially supported students and compared the single-item measures and psychological scales with the types of perceived support.

* = Social support consists of emotional support (e.g., love, empathy, and trust), informational support (e.g., information and advice), instrumental support (e.g., tangible actions), and appraisal (e.g., information for self-evaluation).

Main Findings: 

  • First-generation students are not a homogenous group when it comes to the social support they receive.
  • The study identified three types of support networks for first-generation students that vary in emotional bonds, sizes, reported support from interviews, and perceived social support measured by psychometric scales.
  • Bijou Social Network: Beijou social networks consist of small, emotionally close relationships (fewer than five supporters). They provide a significant amount of instrumental and socio-emotional support. However, while students with this network type have good grades, they tend to be less satisfied with them and have lower self-efficacy than their peers. Because they have fewer peers in their small networks (assuming they have any at all), they might need help in recognizing their achievements. Developing relationships with more peers or staff from the same academic field can provide them with more guidance and help them establish more realistic benchmarks – doing so can promote (perceived) instrumental support.
  • Close-Knit Social Network:  Students in close-knit social networks (have five to ten supporters) state that they receive equally strong instrumental and emotional support but receive more university instrumental support and more social support than their peers with bijou social networks. However, this finding doesn’t align with their perceived social support in their psychometric scales. Students with this network type have slightly lower grades than their peers with bijou social networks and feel just as unsatisfied with them as their peers with have-it-all social networks. Similarly, they are less satisfied with university and are more stressed than their peers. A potential explanation for this has to do with having very emotionally close and dense relationships with five or more contacts (maintaining these close bonds takes time and effort). Setting aside time to reflect can help students figure out more ways to alleviate their stress levels (for instance, they can think about what support they are receiving from their networks to understand how they can be supported more effectively, and so on).
  • Have-It-All Social Network: This term describes large social networks (consisting of ten to eighteen supporters) that include people from various overlapping cliques in a student’s life and vary in importance. While this type of social support appears flawless at first glance, students with this network type report feeling less perceived instrumental and emotional support. These perceptions largely stem from having a variety of contacts from different contexts. Because of the sheer number of people in an individual’s social network, they tend to have weaker, less emotionally close relationships. Receiving guided reflections (with the help of a coach, mentor, etc.) can help students determine what specific contacts they want to strengthen and which contacts can provide more instrumental and emotional support outside of university.

Implications for Mentoring:

This study, aimed at understanding the support networks of first-generation college students, provides a nuanced picture of their social surroundings and pinpoints patterns in their social support networks. One of the main takeaways is that first-generation students are not a homogenous group when it comes to receiving social support. Because social networks can vary in terms of social support type, size, emotional bonds, and perceived social support, practitioners need to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a perfect, one-size-fits-all network (every type of social network has its strengths and weaknesses) and that they can promote different positive outcomes. This finding also underscores the need for universities to provide more targeted support programs (such as training, mentoring, or coaching). Providing support through counselor, mentor, or coach-led programs can help first-generation students reflect on their social networks to fulfill their needs. It also has positive implications for the academic/career success, well-being, and overall satisfaction of first-generation students. Future research should explore first-generation students’ preferences for network additions and continue to adjust support approaches for this population.

To read the full study, click here.