Roommate assignments key in increasing interracial friendships in college
White students generally increased their number of interracial friendships during their first year of college, while black students showed a slight decrease, according to a study at one highly selective private university.
Results showed that students were particularly likely to develop more interracial friendships if they were paired with a residence-hall roommate of a different race.
But white students who joined fraternities or sororities didn't increase their number of friends of other races during their first college year.
Overall, the results support the validity of the saying that "birds of a feather flock together," said Claudia Buchmann, co-author of the study and associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University.
"White and black students tend to have the majority of friends of the same race," she said.
But factors such as extracurricular activities and, especially, living arrangements, can have a significant impact on the number of interracial friendships that students develop, at least at colleges such as the one studied.
"The close ties that college students form when they live together in residence halls seem to break down the racial barriers better than any other experience in college," Buchmann said.
"Just having diversity in classrooms is not enough to encourage interracial friendships. Residence halls are a key."
Buchmann conducted the study with Elizabeth Stearns of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Kara Bonneau of the North Carolina Education Research Data Center. Their results appear in the current issue of the journal Sociology of Education.
Buchmann emphasized that the study was done at one university, and is only representative of students who attend similar, highly selective private universities in the United States. But the study is particularly valuable because of its unique data set which allowed the researchers to see how individual students' friendship networks changed in the transition from high school to college.
The sample included 800 students who were surveyed in the summer before they enrolled in college, and again during the second semester of their first year at the university. Among other questions, students were asked to provide information on up to eight of their friends, including their race.
Results showed that prior to entering college, white students reported far fewer interracial friendships than did any other group. They also lived in neighborhoods and attended high schools with the highest concentration of whites.
During the first year of college, white students' proportion of different-race friends increased from about 11 percent to 16 percent. Black students' proportion of different-race friends declined from about 40 percent to 31 percent.
Why do the proportion of interracial friendships decline for black students? Buchmann believes that college is often the first time that many black students have a relatively large population of other black students with whom to interact. They may choose to "cocoon" with other black students as they acclimate themselves to a predominantly white campus.
Latino, Asian and other-race students had a significantly higher proportion of interracial friendships than did whites before college, and the pattern continued in the first year of college.
During that first year, 80 percent of Latinos' friends were of a different race, while the proportion was 42 percent for Asians and 92 percent for other races.
The results showed the key role that roommate selection and residence halls in general played in fostering interracial friendships in college, according to Buchmann.
Students with a roommate of a different race had significantly higher proportions of interracial friendships than did those with a same-race roommate.
Even students with no roommate in the residence halls had more interracial friends than those with a roommate of the same race.
"If you're in a single room, you're likely to interact with others in your residence hall, and that means you'll be exposed to students of other races," Buchmann said. "But if you have a same-race roommate, you may not have a reason to expand your network."
While living arrangements had a significant effect on friendship networks, classrooms did not. Students who had classes with a greater racial mix did not report higher levels of interracial friendships than those whose classes did not have as much diversity. That's probably because students don't spend nearly as much time in class as they do in their residence halls, she said.
Findings showed that students who joined groups that were highly segregated also had fewer interracial friendships than those who didn't join those kinds of groups. That was true of students who joined cultural or ethnic clubs, and white students who joined fraternities or sororities.
"Many of the fraternities and sororities are predominantly white, so those who join don't get the chance to meet a diverse group of students," she said.
The fact that students will often choose to join groups, like fraternities and sororities, that are not very diverse shows the importance of colleges trying other ways of getting races to mix - such as roommate assignments, Buchmann said.
"Colleges need to find ways to create opportunities for students to expand their horizons and encourage them to break out of the familiar and comfortable," she said. "One way they can do that is by having random roommate assignments that will ensure that some students will have a different-race roommate."