It's time student support networks got an overhaul--and looking to students' social capital is key

5 ways peer networks lead to better student support systems

It's time student support networks got an overhaul--and looking to students' social capital is key

Student support services didn’t live up to their potential during the global health pandemic, economic ups and downs, political turmoil, and more upheaval, according to a report from the Clayton Christensen Institute.

As a result, many students turned to each other to gain support as they navigated challenging issues.

Students often turned to social media–and, by default, used their own social capital–to learn about emergency aid, support networks, and available resources. Social capital refers to “access to, and ability to mobilize, relationships that help further an individual’s potential and goals. Just like skills and knowledge, relationships offer resources that drive access to opportunity,” writes author Chelsea Waite, a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute and the leader of the Canopy project.

This peer social capital is becoming more important as schools develop and implement strategies for student support. In fact, many tools and programs have helped schools in their efforts to draw upon peer connections and student social capital to create student support systems that set students up for success after school.

Some of the roles peers can play include:

  • As social support to foster belonging, identity formation, and social-emotional skills
  • As academic support to drive learning outcomes and keep each other on track
  • As guidance support to expand options and ease transitions
  • As mental health support to promote well-being and reduce loneliness

The report outlines five things school leaders will need to keep in mind as they leverage valuable student social capital to create and grow thriving student support services.

1. Although scaling effective student support services remains a complex challenge, schools should explore how peer-to-peer models can dramatically improve these services on measures like access, convenience, and simplicity. By activating their existing peer networks, schools have an immense opportunity to tackle the shortages they face across mental health, social, academic, and guidance supports.

2. When hallway encounters are unpredictable or out of reach, schools should harness online connections as an innovation opportunity rather than a downgrade from face-to-face meetings. Institutional support services aren’t the only scarce resource for students these days: connections to peers, too, can be hard to come by. Even pre-pandemic, high school and college students commonly reported feeling lonely and isolated.

3. To deliver social capital gains for students, schools should design and evaluate peer-to-peer models with relationships—not just connections—as an explicit outcome. Peer-to-peer models that scale support, expand opportunity, and boost persistence stand to bring a robust network of peers within reach for students. But for authentic relationships to form and stick around as part of students’ reservoirs of social capital, tools and models must be designed with connection—rather than mere contact—in mind.

4. Because peer relationships will only gain value over time, schools should set those relationships up to last as students gain experience, grow their social networks, and build careers. Taking the notion that “relationships matter” a step further, social capital research reveals that trusting relationships are resources that can continue offering value long after students graduate. One potential upside of longer-lasting peer relationships is that, over time, the resources that flow through those peer relationships can change substantially as students gain experience, positional power, and social connections.

5. To foster hard-to-teach skills like leadership and empathy, schools should nurture peer networks as fertile ground for students to develop these skills alongside the web of relationships they need to thrive. For decades, the education sector has heard calls for helping students build the skills needed to meet the demands of both a modern democracy and a changing economy. Today, those skills are more critical than ever. In a country exceptional for its political polarization while facing up to the ongoing consequences of racism and inequality, citizens need skills for cultural competence, difficult conversations, and bridging differences.

“The innovative tools and programs in this report reflect the fact that it’s networks—not just diplomas and degrees—that lead to opportunities and fulfilling lives,” writes Waite. “Peer connections are a critical resource as K–12 schools and postsecondary programs look to support students’ wellbeing and growth, enrich their learning experiences, and expand career options.”

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Laura Ascione

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