Having college-bound friends makes you more likely to enroll, but not if you’re a Black or Latino male

March 23, 2021

Black and Latino students don't follow their friends to college as much as other ethnic groups. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Most high school students are more likely to enroll in college themselves when they have college-bound friends, but that positive influence may be lost on young Black and Latino males, according to new research from Cornell University.

The study of 24,000 high school students in the U.S. found that having close, college-bound friends increases the likelihood of enrolling in college by six percentage points, except for Black and Latino males, who are less likely to attend university regardless of the plans of their close friends.

The paper, "The Role of College-Bound Friends in College Enrollment Decisions by Race, Ethnicity, and Gender," was first published March 4 in the American Educational Research Journal.

While previous research has acknowledged the role peer relationships have on student achievement, this study is unique in its focus on self-described close friendships, which researcher Steven Elías Alvarado said are among the most formative in students' lives. 

"Friends who are college-bound are likely to have important information that can be shared about the classes one needs to take, the exams one needs to take, the forms one must fill out and the timeline in which all of that must happen," said Alvarado, an assistant professor at Cornell University. "Most importantly, friends offer social support and pressure to accomplish these goals."

Using data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, Alvarado was able to take a focused look at how close friendships influence college enrollment. The data gave insight into whether or not students intended to attend college, whether they followed through with their plans, and the types of institutions they ultimately attend, as well as self-reported information about the close relationships in their lives.

While the research confirms that having college-bound friends is influential in an individual's enrollment process, the results are more nuanced along racial, ethnic and gender lines. Some of Alvarado's results reflect what's already known about the racial breakdown of higher education; for example, white students make up 55% of college students in this country and 75% of the most selective institutions, according to a Georgetown study. Similarly, Alvarado's research finds that when it comes to attending highly selective four-year colleges, only white students benefit from having college-bound friends. 

When it comes to attending any college or university, having college-bound friends increases the probability of enrollment for white students by seven percentage points; for Asian students by eight percentage points; and for Black students by four percentage points. Latino students' enrollment in college doesn't benefit from those same friendships. 

There are further divides when gender is considered. Black and Latino males benefit from college-bound friendships far less than their white and Asian male counterparts, as well as their female counterparts. Black females' probability of enrolling in college increases by nine percentage points when they have college-bound friends, and Latinas see benefits not only for enrolling in college but also for enrolling in more selective colleges. 

"Gender, specifically, is very important to consider because of the potential for males and females to differ in the social pressures that they face from friends, family and other key actors along the educational pathway," said Alvarado. 

There are several potential reasons for these differences, according to the research, and many of them are structural and cultural. 

Black and Latino male students are more likely to be stereotyped as unmotivated and underperforming in school, and in turn, may be less likely to embrace the educational system. They're also less likely to be placed in the kinds of advanced courses that would put them in contact with other high-achieving college-bound students. 

Culturally, Black and Latino males may also be more influenced by family relationships than friendships, which would moderate the impact of college-bound friends. The cultural value of familism is also true of Black females and Latinas, but research shows those groups are more likely to have academically oriented friends. 

Knowing all this, educators and college enrollment officials should consider taking new approaches to their recruitment efforts for Black and Latino males, Alvarado said. The assistant professor, who is currently working on research about how college-bound high school friendships influence college completion, said these students could benefit from a more community- and family-focused approach to the college-going process.

"Simply integrating schools is unlikely to produce gains in college enrollment. There need to be opportunities and structures in place to encourage the formation of friendships," he said. "Without incorporating families more directly, college enrollment among Black and Latino males, in particular, is likely to fall short of expectations."

The study, "The Role of College-Bound Friends in College Enrollment Decisions by Race, Ethnicity, and Gender," published March 4 in the American Educational Research Journal, was authored by Steven Elías Alvarado, Cornell University.

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