Study finds link between GPA and social networks

Three types of friendships influence outcomes

The types of friendships students make in college could affect their academic performance, according to a new study by Janice McCabe, an associate professor of sociology and researcher at Dartmouth College. 

After closely following 67 undergraduate students at a Midwestern public university for five years, McCabe determined that students tend to fall into one of three friendship-making types: tight-knitters, compartmentalizers, and samplers. Each type correlated to different study habits and levels of academic outcomes.


Students who fall into the tight-knitter friendship category tend to operate in a single close pack of friends where everyone knows each other. Tight-knitters usually refer to this one group of friends as their family; the group does everything together.

Academically, tight-knitters had the lowest GPA and graduation rates of the three groups. Tight-knitter students often have the same academic habits as their friends: If their friends are distracted, the tight-knitter also tends to perform poorly, and vice versa. Therefore, McCabe says, students in this friendship category were at greater risk of being dragged down by their friends.

McCabe does note that some tight-knitters contradict this tendency, as is the case when close friends encourage rather than distract one another from academics. But she says the groups usually go one way or the other with very little middle ground.


McCabe identified another group of students who make multiple, separate groups of friends during their college years. These "compartmentalizer" students tend to keep small, distinct friend groups that correspond with different activities or organizations.

For instance, a compartmentalizer who plays football in school might have a football friend group, an academic friend group made of different friends, a fraternity friend group made of others, and so on.

Academically, compartmentalizers tend to perform well as long as one of their friend groups is academically oriented, which McCabe says is usually the case.

However, compartmentalizers with more than two groups of friends could suffer academically, since the students' attention could become too divided.

Compartmentalizers often report having taxing social lives, says McCabe, recalling how one student admitted, "Sometimes I lose track of who I really am."

Nudge your students to do what they need to do to stay on track


McCabe's final group of students consists of those who tend to have many individual friendships, none of which operate in groups. The one-on-one friendships are separate; usually the friends do not know one another.

Samplers have the most consistent academic performance out of all three groups; McCabe's research found that these students were academically successful with or without friendships.

Unfortunately, samplers often report feeling lonely or isolated, which could bring their outcomes down if drastic enough.

"They did well without friends academically," says McCabe, "but I wondered how much more successful they could have been if they didn't feel so lonely" (Hoverter, The Dartmouth, 9/14; Kamenetz, NPR, 11/2; James, NBC News, 11/1; Wang, Quartz, 10/26). 

Your field guide to the student mindset

Next in Today's Briefing

A new way to get inside the mind of a student

Next Briefing

  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague