The present study’s contributions to the literature are insights into how students describe and form multiplex relationships; the study also improves our understanding of the complex relationships within student groups at a commuter college. The findings showed that having multiplex ties helps students thrive socially and academically (McCabe, 2016). For this reason, it is important to understand how students find support in each other when they are striving to orient themselves in higher education, whether in online or face-to-face learning environments. The case presented is also an example how a mixed-methods social network study can provide pedagogical insights that are valuable when designing a study program.
One overarching theme in the students’ accounts of their study-related networks is how the networks help them remain engaged in their studies; this is in line with previous research (e.g., Thomas, 2012). Students described how the different relationships provided different kinds of support, all of which built engagement in different ways. They reported that the friendship network made coming to school fun and provided access to information, both of which are important to academic achievement (e.g., Hommes et al., 2012). In line with McCabe’s (2016) findings, students indicated that the multiplex relationships were central to their academic success, as such relationships provided both task-related and emotional support (e.g., Rienties & Tempelaar, 2018). Students in the same network were “in the same boat,” “understood each other,” and having their support contributed the most to learning and engagement.
The interviewed students had a small number of multiplex relations, 1–2 peers whom they trusted and could rely on in their studies; this pattern is consistent with that found in the cohort as a whole (Author, 2021). Previous research has shown that commuter students have a smaller number of friendship and multiplex relations (e.g., Author et al., 2021) than students who live on or close to campus. There is inconclusive evidence regarding the importance of the working network to academic outcomes, whereas research has provided consistent evidence showing the importance of the friendship network to successful academic outcomes (e.g., Hommes et al., 2012; Thomas, 2012; Tomás-Miquel et al., 2016). In the present cohort, there were no significant differences in network size between Swedish commuter and non-commuter students, whereas immigrant commuter students had fewer friendship and working relations than did immigrant students who did not commute. In the cohort, immigrant commuter students earned fewer credits in nominal time than did Swedish commuter students (REF: Author, 2021).
Embeddedness in a larger friendship group is important, as students then have access to a larger pool of relationships for information, meaning there are more people with whom they can potentially develop multiplex relationships. Students with limited friendship relations both lack access to information and have limited opportunities to form multiplex relationships. This means that they are potentially locked into their limited network early in the program. A sense of regret could be detected in interviews with the students with limited networks: Taylor, Monawar and Ahmed. According to Taylor”new gangs were created, and I was outside,” and for Monawar, “the second year was difficult” because he knew only one other student in the class. Taylor struggled and was unsure of the relevance of getting an education, and both Ahmed and Monawar dropped out during the second year. This shows how having a very limited multiplex network and few friendship relations may ultimately impact academic achievement and students’ epistemological development. Intragroup (friendship) relations, provide access to expertise and critical reflection, which have been positively associated with academic performance (Gašević et al., 2013) and creativity (Tomás-Miquel et al., 2016).
One finding from the study is important for the program in question: This is the fact that the very factors that enabled participation for many students were perceived as barriers by other, less well-integrated students. The research has revealed various barriers to participation, such as institutional, situational, and dispositional barriers (e.g., Goto & Martin, 2009). One institutional barrier all interviewed students mentioned was orientation week, which excluded shy students or immigrant students who chose not to participate for religious or cultural reasons. Shyness and lack of social and study skills were dispositional barriers mentioned by both Swedish and immigrant students. Old friends from high school and commuting were situational barriers, mainly for immigrant students, who preferred to study with other immigrant students in their hometown. One implication for the program in question is that orientation week, which was important for relationship building among Swedish students, may need to be modified. The organization of activities cannot be left to the student union alone, but faculty need to work strategically to make the student union orientation week activities more inclusive, and in this specific context, less focused on partying and alcohol consumption. One immigrant student had thought about it and suggested: “It’s not for us /…/ why not play football, we all love football.”
The present results offer a complex picture of commuter students and of commuting as a barrier to participation. Previous literature has pointed out that commuter students are less likely to fully engage with their peers (e.g., Pokorny et al., 2017) or to participate in campus activities after class (Biddix, 2015). Some of the commuter students had limited networks and some struggled academically, but the commute was generally not seen as something negative. Some Swedish commuter students in the study, such as Ed and Mary, had just as many relationships, and Swedish commuter students succeeded in their studies to the same extent as their non-commuting counterparts (Author, 2020, 2021). This is in line with Gianoutsos and Rosser (2014), who found no difference in retention and academic standing between commuters and non-commuters.
In contrast, the commute was seen as a barrier mainly for the immigrant students, whose decision not to participate in full may have depended on several overlapping barriers. This finding is corroborated by previous studies of the same cohort regarding background factors and self-assessed preparedness, which have shown that immigrant students who commuted longer also earned fewer credits (e.g., Author, 2021; London Higher, 2019). Thus, commuting created an extra barrier primarily for immigrant students, who also mentioned having difficulties forming academically supportive relationships. The problem could partly be linked to a wider integration problem detected in this specific program, which is may well be similar to the situation for programs in other higher education contexts. Students talked about commuters and non-commuters, and how it was difficult to cooperate. Sometimes they added “apart from X, who is one of us.” In many cases, what they described was a divide based on ethnicity, rather than on commuting.
The quantitative analysis of the network data confirmed this view, indicating that most of the multiplex networks were homophilous regarding gender and ethnicity, revealing a division between ethnic Swedes and students with an immigrant background (see Author, 2021). In the interviews, Swedish students felt immigrant commuters preferred staying in their hometown to study and did not want to take part in social activities outside the classroom, such as orientation week, corroborating the picture of commuter students in previous literature (e.g., Pokorny et al., 2017). The immigrant commuter students also partly confirmed this view; they preferred studying in their hometowns with other commuter students but went to campus when necessary. They further explained how they formed multiplex relationships mainly with other immigrant students who lived in the same town. Students talked about how they, for example, were “the same age” or had the same “background,” referring to how they had grown up in the same place. There is consistent evidence showing that students form homophilous networks, that is, they prefer forming relationships with peers similar to themselves regarding, for example, gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic background or age, and cultural preferences (e.g., Rienties & Tempelaar, 2018; Rienties et al., 2015) as well as academic performance (e.g., Gašević et al., 2013).
Students form relationships based on preference or opportunity (e.g., Hommes et al., 2012). One opportunity for forming relationships that students mentioned was group work during the first semester, which has previously been found to be a strong predictor of relationships that students develop into friendships, at least temporarily (Rienties & Nolan, 2014). Other meeting places mentioned were orientation week activities and the commute to school. The friendships that lasted and developed into constructive and long-lasting multiplex relationships were those that “worked out,” in the sense that students found both the emotional and instrumental support needed for their studies. They spoke of how they continued working together because they “worked in the same way” or had the “same level of ambition,” which is in line with how students tend to form relationships with other students who perform at the same level (e.g., Gašević et al., 2013). Students who chose not to participate in orientation week, or for whom group work during the first semester did not work out, remained on the periphery of the cohort. They eventually formed a few friendship and multiplex relations, as students are less open to forming new relationships after the first year (e.g., Mamas, 2018).
A strong tendency toward homophily in student networks could have negative effects on students’ knowledge development. According to Curşeu and Pluut (2013), less diversity in groups leads to fewer chances for students to learn from or be motivated by each other. Students benefit from diversity, as it results in greater complexity of the collective knowledge in the group. Students also benefit from working with more motivated peers who contribute drive and organization. At the same time, greater disparity has a negative effect on teamwork processes and interpersonal interaction. Students were aware of both the benefits of collaboration with others, as pointed out in other studies (e.g., Mamas, 2018), and the drawbacks, which is why they preferred working with their multiplex relationships, especially on high-stakes assignments; in this context, high-stakes mean the assignments were decisive for their course grade.
In sum, both strong multiplex and weaker friendship relations are important to academic outcomes (Rienties & Tempelaar, 2018), and the interviews clearly indicate that students who performed less well did not have the same access to valuable information that their better-connected peers did. These students also spoke with regret about not knowing many people and hardly knowing the names of people in the class. In the target program, students are strategically mixed during the first semester, but are thereafter either free to choose their own groups or directed to work with certain others, depending on the preference of the teacher in question. In the interviews, students reported preferring to decide for themselves, wanting to work with people they can trust. Arguably, it is important to let them do this, especially when the tasks are complex, and their course grade is at stake.
One possible suggestion for the program in question is to organize activities in and around the classroom that enable students to form stable and rewarding multiplex relationships. On the other hand, the program should develop a model for group work that gives students the choice to work with multiplex relationships to the extent possible, while also offering them ample opportunity to get input from other peers with a more diverse background. This could be achieved if faculty were to engage more strategically in group formation and group work throughout the program.
During the first year, it is important to assign students to groups, as this allows all students to form constructive strong ties and important weak ties within the cohort. Group work and group processes must then be closely monitored to mitigate negative stereotyping and team conflict (Curşeu & Pluut, 2013). The further the students come in their studies, gradually forming multiplex relationships, the more they should be able to self-select, especially for more complex group assignments or for their final bachelor’s thesis. At the same time, to mitigate the negative effects of homophily on knowledge development and creativity, and increase access to information, students should be given ample opportunities to work together on low-stakes assignments in class or to discuss questions related to their high-stakes assignments with representatives from other groups.