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  • Interracial Friendships Across the College Years:Evidence from a Longitudinal Case Study
  • Nathan D. Martin (bio), William Tobin (bio), and Kenneth I. Spenner (bio)

Today, the student bodies of our leading colleges and universities are more diverse than ever. However, college students are increasingly self-segregating by race or ethnicity (Saenz, Ngai, & Hurtado, 2007). A burgeoning literature documents the benefits of campus diversity and shows that having friends of a different race predicts greater acceptance and awareness of other groups as well as higher levels of academic self-confidence and learning outcomes (e.g., Antonio, 2004; Hu & Kuh, 2003). For many young adults, the college years serve as the first opportunity to interact with a large number of peers from different backgrounds. Yet, in order to fully realize the benefits of structural diversity on campus, it is important to understand how interracial friendships are formed and maintained across the college years.

In this study we explored factors that influence the degree to which students’ campus friends are of a different race or ethnicity. We focused on relationships that are more sustained and involve greater trust than routine interactions on campus (e.g., Chang, Denson, Sáenz, & Misa, 2006), but are less intimate than best or closest friends (e.g., Antonio, 2004). Recent studies show that high school experiences are associated with having friendships that cross racial-ethnic boundaries in college (Fischer, 2008), and that having a different-race roommate can provide opportunities to form interracial friendships (Camargo, Stinebrickner, & Stinebrickner, 2010; Stearns, Buchmann, & Bonneau, 2009). Additionally, Stearns and colleagues (2009) found that fraternity or sorority membership is associated with fewer interracial friendships for White students. These studies make a valuable contribution to our understanding of interracial friendship formation, although the existing literature has been limited by focusing attention on the early college years or by considering White and Black students only.

Using survey data from the Campus Life & Learning Project—a prospective panel study of students at a selective, private university in the Southeastern United States—we extend the existing literature by considering the experiences of White, Black, Latino, and Asian students, and by examining a broad range of college activities. Our results indicate that students’ friendships become less diverse from the first to the fourth years, and that aspects of the residential environment, interactions with faculty, types of extracurricular participation, and the presence of alcohol at social events are significant predictors of having interracial campus friendships.


The Campus Life & Learning Project (CLL) followed the incoming classes of 2001 and 2002 with four survey waves administered in [End Page 720] the summer prior to matriculation and in the spring of the first, second, and fourth college years. Importantly, the CLL was not intended to be representative of all postsecondary institutions, but it can be considered as characteristic of other elite private and many highly rated public universities in terms of admissions rate and yield, cost of attendance, student–faculty ratio, SAT scores of incoming students, and student retention rate.

Among all incoming students in the two CLL cohorts (N = 3,254), about 60% were White, 11% were Black, 8% were Latino, 15% were Asian, and 7% were multiracial or some other race. The CLL design randomly selected one third of White students, two thirds of Asian students, and one third of multiracial students in each cohort, as well as all Black and Latino students. The full sample included 1,536 students, and 79% of sample members completed the precollege survey. Of these precollege respondents, 77% also responded to the first-year survey, 75% to the second-year survey, and 67% to the fourth-year survey. For this study, the analytic sample (n = 996) is restricted to precollege respondents who completed at least one in-college survey and excludes multiracial students.

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Table 1.

Responses (% n) to “What best describes your friends on campus?”

The dependent variable in the analysis to follow is from an item collected in each in-college wave that asked students: “What best describes your friends on campus?”; with response choices: all or nearly all your race, mostly your race, half your race and half not your race, mostly...