Friday, 12 December 2014

Party On! (If You're Middle-Class and Young): Age Differences Explain Social Class Differences in University Friendships

In a recent meta-analytic review, I found that working-class students are less integrated at university than their middle-class peers. I offered up nine potential explanations for this working-class exclusion effect. It turns out that one of the simplest explanations in this list is also the most promising. It’s all to do with age.

Working-class students tend to be older than middle-class students. Why? Most likely because they don’t tend to go to university immediately after school but instead get out into the real world and earn a bit of money before accumulating the financial security to upskill in higher education (James, 2000). So, there tends to be a negative correlation between social class and age at university. Younger students tend to be middle-class school leavers, and older students tend to be more mature-aged, worldly-wise students.

In some recent research, Chrysalis Wright and I found that age differences help to explain social class differences in students’ friendships. We surveyed 376 first-year undergraduate psychology students, asking them how many friends they had at uni and how much their friends mattered to their identity. We found that working-class students had fewer identity-relevant friends and regarded the friends that they did have as being less relevant to their identity. Moreover, we found that age differences explained this social class effect.
Put Your Hands Up!...Unless you have kids and no money to go out!
So what? Well, as I’ve argued elsewhere, a potentially important method of improving working-class students’ academic outcomes is to improve the quality and quantity of their university friendships. University friends can help to explain coursework assignments, remind one another about due dates, act as study buddies, provide a shoulder to cry on during stressful periods, and instil a sense of belonging and institutional identification that increases degree commitment and persistence. Research has shown that working-class students are most in need of this type of support.

What our current research shows is that any attempts at improving working-class students’ friendships need to take their more mature age into account. So, night-time discos and parties might be fun for the 20-somethings, but it’s not a realistic approach to social integration for the more mature-aged, child-caring, working-class students. Likewise, on-campus accommodation is an excellent method of improving social integration at university, but this tried-and-tested approach needs to be adapted to take into account students’ social class, age, and concomitant family commitments.

Last thing before I go! Our research found that working-class students had not only fewer friends than middle-class students but also less desire and concern about making new friends. Hence, simply providing opportunities for friendship-building is unlikely to be sufficient. Universities also need to motivate older working-class students to participate in social life at university, perhaps through the use of information campaigns that highlight the informational and emotional support that is provided by university friends.

For more information about our research, please see the following paper:

Rubin, M., & Wright, C. (2014). Age differences explain social class differences in students’ friendship at university: Implications for transition and retention Higher Education DOI: 10.1007/s10734-014-9844-8

Please click here for a self-archived version.