Wittrup, A. R., & Hurd, N. M. (2021). The role of trajectories of stress and social support in underrepresented students’ educational outcomes. Applied Developmental Science. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888691.2021.1906677
Summarized by Ariel Ervin
Notes of Interest:
- Many underrepresented college students not only have to cope with stressors that are associated with being in college but also ones that are related to their marginalized identities as well.
- Past studies have highlighted the role social support has in alleviating stress.
- This study explored how much social support moderated the negative impact of perceived stress and educational outcomes in underrepresented college students over four years.
- Three latent profiles of perceived stress and social support were identified:
- Early Stress Spike
- Late Support Increase
- Decreasing Social Support
- The Early Stress Spike and Late Support Increase groups experienced more perceived stress than social support during the first two years of college.
- They experienced more social support than perceived stress during the spring of their fourth year.
- Participants in the ‘Decreasing Social Support’ group received a lot of social support at the beginning of their college careers.
- The amount of social support that they received decreased throughout their years in college.
- The sample in the ‘Decreasing Social Support’ group had the lowest rates of on-time graduation and was less likely to follow their career goals than the ‘Late Support’ group.
- Gender, race, age, extraversion, conscientiousness, depressive symptoms, and family income didn’t correlate with educational outcomes.
Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)
The current study examined the potential impact of trajectories of perceived stress and social support from parents, friends, romantic partners, and natural mentors (i.e., supportive adults from youths’ everyday lives) throughout underrepresented students’ college careers on their subsequent educational outcomes. Participants were underrepresented college students (n = 340) who were surveyed five times across their 4 years of college. The outcomes of interest (i.e., on-time graduation, pursuit of career goals) were assessed during the final wave of data collection. Longitudinal latent profiles were estimated based on fluctuations in perceived stress and social support over time. Three latent profiles of social support and perceived stress emerged: Early Stress Spike, Late Support Increase, and Decreasing Social Support. Results suggested that participants in the Decreasing Social Support group contained the fewest on-time graduating students, and students in this profile were less likely to be pursuing career goals than the Late Support Increase group.
Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)
The goal of the current study was to examine the role of social support in buffering against the harmful impacts of perceived stress on underrepresented college students’ academic success. We hypothesized that latent profile membership, based on longitudinal patterns of social support and perceived stress, would be differentially associated with academic success. The results suggested that latent profile membership was associated with some of the outcomes of interest in this study. Specifically, students in the Decreasing Social Support profile had lower on-time graduation rates relative to both the Late Support Increase and Early Stress Spike profiles. Additionally, students in the Late Support Increase profile were more likely to pursue their career goals following graduation than students in the Decreasing Social Support profile. The Decreasing Social Support group consisted of the fewest on-time graduating students when compared to both the Early Stress Spike and Late Support Increase groups. Among students in the Early Stress Spike and Late Support Increase groups, social support may have been more responsive to students’ perceived stress levels. Patterns in both latent profiles tended to reflect levels of social support that calibrated based on students’ levels of perceived stress over time. Specifically, the Late Support Increase and Early Stress Spike groups reported periods during their first 2 years of college during which perceived stress was comparable or relatively higher than levels of social support. However, by the spring of their fourth year, both groups reported levels of social support that were relatively higher than their levels of perceived stress. Elevated levels of social support during this period may have affirmed to students that they were equipped to face impending challenges, buffering against the impact of perceived stress on academic outcomes (Thoits, 2011).
In contrast to the Early Stress Spike and Late Support Increase profiles, students in the Decreasing Social Support profile reported levels of perceived stress relatively higher than their levels of social support during their third and fourth years of college. Students in the Decreasing Social Support group began college with levels of social support well above average. By their second year of college, perceived stress and social support were both roughly average. During the fourth and fifth waves of data collection, social support among the students in this profile had dropped to well below average. Perceived stress, in contrast, remained relatively stable. The patterns that emerged in the Decreasing Social Support profile suggest that loss of social support did not impact students’ levels of perceived stress. Further, findings suggest the elevated social support that students in this profile received during their first year of college did not improve their odds of graduating on time relative to other latent profiles. One possible explanation as to why perceived stress did not increase when social support decreased among students in the Decreasing Social Support group may be that the social support students received had not been beneficial (Sanders & Anderson, 2010; Scharp et al., 2016). Students may have felt as though the support that they received had not been helpful, or had even been harmful, causing them to decrease their future efforts to recruit social support over time (MacGeorge et al., 2011). In some cases, seeking social support may have required students to expose their uncertainty and vulnerability to others. Students also may have experienced well-intentioned attempts to provide social support as undermining or dismissive (Deelstra et al., 2003). Another explanation for these patterns may be that the relationships from which students sought social support during their first year of college were conflictual (Lincoln, 2000). Higher levels of social support received among students in this profile during their first year may have reflected a higher frequency of overall social contact. Within the context of unhealthy relationships, this may have entailed greater frequency of arguments, hostility, and criticism. While distancing from such relationships was likely adaptive, if students failed to form new supportive relationships, they might have missed the potential benefits of social support.
Students in the Late Support Increase group were more likely to report pursuing career goals following graduation than the Decreasing Social Support group. It is worth noting that the gap between social support and perceived stress was greatest for both the Late Support Increase and Decreasing Social Support profiles during the spring of students’ third year of college (Wave 4). Specifically, the Late Support Increase and Decreasing Social Support profiles both reported slightly above average perceived stress during the fourth wave of data collection. Among members of the Late Support Increase profile, however, social support was also elevated during this time. In contrast, among students in the Decreasing Social Support profile, social support was below average during the fourth wave of data collection. Elevation in social support relative to perceived stress during the spring of their third year of college onwards may help to explain the Late Support Increase group’s success when compared to the Decreasing Social Support group in terms of pursuing career goals. Many progression-focused activities cluster in the third year of college (e.g., career workshops, networking events; Thomas, 2002; Webb & Cotton, 2019). Therefore, students in the Late Support Increase group may have experienced more career-related encouragement, opportunities, and support from a range of relationships.
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