This article argues that to understand higher education student retention, equal emphasis needs to be placed on successful integration into the social world of the university as into the academic world. To date, sociological research reflecting first‐year students’ perceptions of the processes involved in developing social lives at university is scarce. Here the concept of ‘social support’ is used to analyse interviews with 34 first‐year students, investigating the processes through which social integration (or lack of it) influenced their decision as to whether or not to leave university. Our data support the claim that making compatible friends is essential to retention, and that students’ living arrangements are central to this process. Such friends provide direct emotional support, equivalent to family relationships, as well as buffering support in stressful situations. Course friendships and relationships with personal tutors are important but less significant, providing primarily instrumental, informational and appraisive support.