By Oliver Gladfelter
When I used to give tours of campus to prospective students and their families, the most I common question I got was “Why did you choose Denison?” As I would explain, it was the community – Denison students care about each other, look out for one another, and are always there when you need some support (sounds like a pretty good answer to nervous high school seniors, right?). Yet as finals are in full swing, and most students could use a strong support network now more than ever, I’m wondering…which Denisonians are receiving the most support from other students?
In a survey sent out to Denison students in November of 2016, we gauged support networks by asking students “How many people on campus could you rely on to: bum a ride to the grocery store, borrow $20, get a set of notes from a missed class, and talk about a breakup.” Survey participants answered each of these four questions on a scale of 0-10 people. Our measure for support thus runs from 0 to 40, an aggregate of the score from each question. The all-campus average is 21.34, so about right in the middle of the index.
| Figure 1 – Support Network Sizes On Campus
Note that this measure doesn’t differentiate between having a few great friends and a lot of just OK friends. For example, a score of 40 could equate to having 10 friends who could be relied on for all four support activities or having 40 friends who could each be relied on for only one category. Thus what this really measures is not the amount of friends, but rather the overall strength of a support network. While there are definitely philosophical arguments about which is better, for the purposes of this article, assume that having 10 fantastic friends is equally as beneficial as having 40 mediocre ones.
| Figure 2 – Effects of Class Year, Involvement, Quad Residence, and Family Income on Support Network
It is probably needless to say that students’ networks grow stronger over time. We see the weakest networks among first-years and watch it grow each succeeding year – by about 1.36 people every year, actually. Building up a solid support network takes time, so it makes sense that the strength of these networks increase with each year.
Network strength also grows as levels of involvement rise, by about 1.01 people for every added organization, club, etc. Involvement provides more opportunities to develop relationships that can develop into support. Students involved in less than three organizations (the campus average) typically have a network strength of 19.0, those with average involvement have network strengths of 21.21, and students involved in any more than that average 24.24. So as it turns out, I wasn’t lying every time I told incoming freshmen at June-O to join clubs when they asked me how to make friends in college.
There is one aspect of involvement in particular that plays a big role here – Greek Life. All other factors controlled for, unaffiliated students average a network strength of 19.13 while those in a fraternity or sorority average 26.84. More than any other factor I looked at, being involved in a fraternity or sorority rapidly skyrockets students’ support networks.(see note 1) From now on, I’m going to be using a lot more numbers when trying to recruit for my fraternity.
I can easily guess which quad any student lives on if I know their class year. Every year, 85% of the freshman class lives on West Quad; about 80% of sophomores and juniors live on East Quad; and upwards of 90% of seniors live on North Quad. As a result of these decisive majorities, students who don’t live on the quad associated with their class year may feel isolated – they’re separated from the very people they came into college with, after all.
This separation has a significant effect on one’s support network. Average support strength for first-years living on North Quad was 17.95, while it was 18.85 for those first-years living on West Quad – almost a whole extra person! This gap is more dramatic for sophomores and juniors; sophomores on East Quad averaged support levels 4.3 persons greater than those living elsewhere and juniors averaged 5.84 higher. Both sophomores and juniors who live away from East Quad actually average support levels lower than freshmen.
For seniors there wasn’t much of a visible gap – this is because there are three distinct groups here. The vast majority of seniors living on South Quad are in apartments with roommates. On North Quad, seniors could be in in the Sunset/Brownstone apartments or in singles in the Sunset House or the teardrop (which is the lonelier half of North Quad). The seniors living on North Quad with roommates have the strongest support networks (24.73), those living on North Quad but without roommates have the weakest networks (22.03), and those living on South Quad fall in the middle (23.45). Essentially, it seems like North Quad and South Quad seniors have equally strong support networks, yet in reality that’s just because the two North Quad groups balance each other out. Thus, living close to your class does in fact have a positive effect on seniors’ support networks, yet not enough to overcome the negative effects of living alone.
Finally (and unfortunately), income has a significant effect on support networks. Network size averages 17.53 for those coming from low income families, 20.84 for those from average income families, and 23.04 for those from high income families. At first I assumed this was simply because income is highly correlated with Greek life involvement, however income is still a strong indicator of network strength even when Greek life is controlled for (see Figure 3). Essentially, income plays a notable effect among both Greek-affiliated and unaffiliated students.
| Figure 3 – The Intersection Effects of Greek Life and Income on Social Support
So which students are feeling the most support? The upperclassmen. The highly involved. Those in Greek life. Those who live near their class-year. And those who come from high income families. This can be a bit frustrating, as some of these factors are out of our control. However, we have full control over one of the most powerful determinants of network strength – campus involvement. The difference in strength levels from belonging to just 1 organization to 8 is an incredible jump. Although I’m not advocating everyone go out and join 8 clubs, getting just a little bit more involved can make a major difference in your support network.
Another thing I found comforting (and somewhat surprising) is that neither political party, ideology, gender, race, nor sexual orientation correlates with network strength. So conveniences such as having more money or living closer to your class might bring more support, but students aren’t losing support from campus based on their political attitudes or key, mostly unchanging aspects of their identity.
So what are the effects of lower or higher support network strength? Is having a score of 40 really better than 20? Is 20 really better than 10? Or does it take just a few to have all the benefits that come along with a support system? Stay tuned to find out…
[This is part 1 of a 2 part series about social support at Denison.]
Oliver Gladfelter is a huge advocate of procrastination and spends most of his time finding new ways to waste time. He also studies political science on the side.