Widening higher education participation has resulted in efforts directed towards increasing higher education access. However, inequality in higher education completion continues to exist. Social factors have been found to play an important role in academic achievement. Given the role of social factors, this article examines the academic outcomes of students from a social network, social capital, and social support perspective with a special focus on underrepresented groups in higher education. The article is based on a systematic review of literature where evidence shows that the networks of students including their family, ethnic and religious affiliations, friends, and faculty play a role in academic success. The article details a framework describing how network members of underrepresented groups complement each other with regard to resources offered and contribute to academic success.
Widening higher education participation has gained increased political focus globally in recent years, resulting in efforts directed towards expanding higher education access (Marginson, 2016; Osborne, 2003). Indeed, these political reforms have resulted in an increase in the number and diversity of students entering higher education. For instance, in the last ten years, the enrolment of students aged 25–34 years in tertiary education has increased in all OECD countries, with some countries e.g., Australia, Czech Republic, Greece, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland even reporting an increase of over 10% (OECD, 2018). Furthermore, previously underrepresented groups such as students from low social background are now increasingly becoming a part of the higher education system. Nonetheless, disparities in education achievement continue to exist as increased participation within these groups alone cannot guarantee academic success (Crozier, Reay, Clayton, Collinader, & Grinstead, 2008; Marginson, 2016). It is observed that first-generation learners (Müller & Schneider, 2013; OECD, 2018), those with migration background (Ebert & Heublein, 2017) are still at-risk of dropping out of university without obtaining a degree. The achievement gap between students from high and low socio-economic backgrounds can be attributed partly to the differences in family's resources vis-à-vis finances, academic guidance or information, parental involvement or language skills (Willingham, 2012). Alongside family members, the role of peers and support groups at university also influence academic outcomes. Hossler, Schmidt, and Vesper (1999) highlight the importance of peer support in improving understanding of course materials and clarifying difficult concepts (Gallop & Bastien, 2016). Peer support and networks also determine student's integration and acceptance in higher education institutions which subsequently affects retention and success (Gallop & Bastien, 2016; Nagasawa & Wong, 1999).