In the spotlight
Do students benefit from being surrounded by high achievers at college?
Does the social environment at college determine students’ achievement? A recent study shows that exposure to high achievers during the first week at college can lead to lower course grades and higher dropout rates among academically weaker students. This finding shows that the social environment plays a key role in the transition to college life.
By Petra Thiemann
Successfully obtaining a university degree increases people’s earnings over the life course (Oreopoulos and Petronijevic, 2013). Finishing university education, however, is a challenge for many students. In OECD countries, for instance, about a quarter of the students who start a tertiary degree (college or university) never finish it (OECD, 2019). Not only the students’ skill level but also their social environment is key to succeeding at college (Tinto, 1975). Friends and study partners are a major part of this social environment.
But which types of friends and study partners help or hinder a successful start into postsecondary education? Shall students surround themselves with high achievers, or rather stay together with those students who are at the same ability level? On the one hand, high achieving peers could help students’ progress as they share their knowledge and skills. On the other hand, being surrounded by high achievers can discourage those who are less confident (Rogers and Feller, 2016). The present study (Thiemann, 2022) seeks answers to the question of whether exposure to high achievers matters during tertiary education, and for whom.
The study investigates peer groups that were formed as part of a freshmen week at a Swiss university. Such freshmen groups spend a whole week together, engaging in group work, and touring the campus. The students easily form new friendships and study partnerships within the group. The setup is also compelling for another reason: the students are randomly assigned to the freshmen groups. This means that some students, just by chance, will end up with groups that have many high achievers, whereas other students end up in groups with few or no high achievers. In the study, students are classified as “high achiever” or “academically weaker student” based on background characteristics that predict future college achievement. For instance, having passed a selective admissions test is a predictor for high achievement, and having a foreign mother tongue is a risk-factor for low achievement. (Similar results ensue when classifying students based on their high-school grades). The study investigates whether the experience of having high achievers in one’s freshmen group impacts student performance, including dropout, course grades, major choice, and time to graduation.
The study finds that exposure to high achievers in a freshmen group, overall, has adverse effects on weaker students’ performance. Those who are exposed to larger shares of high achievers obtain lower course grades on average and are more likely to drop out during the first year at university. These effects materialize already in the first four months of their studies. Students who are themselves high achievers, however, are not strongly affected by having either high- or low-achieving peers.
The transition from high school to college is difficult – especially for students who are disadvantaged in terms of skills or socio-economic background. This study demonstrates that universities shall not disregard the social environment when trying to smooth the transition to college. Even small interventions at the onset of university education can do good or harm, depending on how they are set up. While trying to mix students might be well-intended, it could also be advantageous to bring students into contact with peers who have similar backgrounds and skill levels. As an avenue for further research, one may ask: how can universities create social environments that make students thrive?
This study has received ethical approval by the data representative at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. Only anonymized data has been used.
OECD (2019), Education at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris.
Philip Oreopoulos & Uros Petronijevic, 2013. "Making College Worth It: A Review of the Returns to Higher Education," The Future of Children, vol 23(1), pages 41-65.
Rogers, T., & Feller, A. (2016). Discouraged by peer excellence: Exposure to exemplary peer performance causes quitting. Psychological science, 27(3), 365-374.
Thiemann, P. (2022). The persistent effects of short-term peer groups on performance: Evidence from a natural experiment in higher education. Management Science, 68(2), 1131-1148.
Tinto, V. (1975) Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research, Review of Educational Research, 45(1), 89–125.