Peer Connections and the First-Year Experience

Several classic works on college student development, including Pascarella’s 1985 model, emphasizes interactions with peers as an important predictor of student learning and development. However, translating what we may know from student development theory into practice can be difficult. Within this context, this research note will explore peer connections in first-year college students using a national dataset of nearly 145,000 students.

Key Questions:

  1. To what degree do first year students make peer connections?
  2. What are the characteristics of students who have a high degree of peer connections versus those who have lower degrees of peer connections?
  3. How are peer connections related to key outcomes?

Key Findings:

  • Students with high connections to peers reported higher levels of satisfaction with key aspects of their college experience compared to students reporting lower levels.
  • Students reporting high levels of connectivity to their peers were more likely to have higher fall-term GPAs and were more likely to be return for their second year of college.

60% more students with a high degree of peer connections report high satisfaction with their on-campus social experience than students with a low degree of peer connections.

Prevalence of Peer Connections in First-Year Students

The peer connections factor in the Mapworks surveys contains three questions asking about the degree of connection to people with common interests, that they like, and who include them in activities. Figure 1 below displays the percentage of students responding not at all (1 or 2 on a seven-point scale), moderately (3-5) and extremely (6-7) on these questions.

Student Characteristics

Connections to peers are positively related to various aspects of the first-year student transition, including institutional commitment, satisfaction with the institution, student involvement, homesickness, living experiences, social integration, and academic integration.

Institutional Commitment and Satisfaction

Figure 2 below shows the percentage of first-year students responding averaging 6 or higher (extremely) on questions related to commitment to and satisfaction with their institution divided by peer connection groups. 7 out of 10 students with high levels of peer connectivity report high satisfaction with their institution compared to only 4 in 10 with moderate levels of peer connections and only a little over a quarter of students with low levels of these connections. When paired with the 26% difference in institutional commitment between high and low peer-to-peer levels, this serves to indicate just how important peer connections are to students’ overall experience in their institution.

To access all the data in this robust research note, just fill out the form to the right. What other factors have an effect on the first-year college experience? Our research note, “An Overview of College Student Homesickness,” takes a closer look at one of the defining struggles of freshmen new to higher education.