Access to opportunity depends on more than just education--social connections play a role, meaning students' social capital can't be overlooked

How did the pandemic impact students’ social capital?

Access to opportunity depends on more than just education--social connections play a role, meaning students' social capital can't be overlooked

Students’ access to opportunities in life largely depends on their access to diverse, supportive relationships. Now, updated Christensen Institute research illustrates the impact students’ connections and relationships have on their ability to achieve success in adulthood–and underscores the need for schools to track this data as they measure students’ progress.

The updated report augments ongoing research and provides education leaders with the tools, knowledge, and sample survey items to make important strides toward measuring students’ networks in more equitable, meaningful, and actionable ways.

Emerging research from other organizations has strengthened the need to understand just how important relationships and resources are to students, particularly as opportunity gaps grow even wider.

In 2021, nonprofit think tank Brookings Institution published “How We Rise,” which analyzes findings from a survey developed by research partner Econometrica to assess how individuals’ education, job, and housing networks impacted their chances of economic mobility.

A similar research collaboration between Strada, a national social impact organization, and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) evaluated undergraduate students’ engagement in career preparation activities, including surveying students about their participation in various social capital-building opportunities and their confidence tapping into alumni and professional networks.

Brookings discovered that across the four cities it studied, race was the leading predictor of the size and strength of individuals’ job, education, and housing networks, with Black men reporting the smallest, weakest networks. NSSE and Strada data revealed that across the 55,000 college students surveyed, first-generation students are less likely than continuing-generation students to take part in career-building activities, especially those related to building social capital within their fields of interest, including networking with alumni or other professionals; interviewing or shadowing someone in their career of interest; and discussing career interests with faculty.

This information forms “a critical bedrock for policies and practices aimed at deepening and expanding social networks in more equitable ways,” according to the updated research.

Schools and nonprofits also have new ways to initiate their own data collection. For example, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Search Institute, a nonprofit research organization focused on youth development, created a free assessment called the Social Capital Assessment + Learning for Equity (SCALE) Measures. Learning measurement platforms, such as Hello Insight, are integrating social capital and peer network measurements within their SEL assessments.

The Christensen Institute’s initial report examines the complex–but increasingly important–issues surrounding students’ relationships. It explores the idea that students have to have access to the right resources and opportunities to follow their interests and excel in school and beyond–and key among those resources, although often-overlooked, is students’ social capital.

Part of this importance lies in closing opportunity gaps. In fact, “building students’ social capital is an equity imperative for any system committed to closing opportunity gaps,” according to the report.

In The Missing Metrics: Emerging practices for measuring students’ relationships and networks, authors Mahnaz Charania, Ph.D., a senior research fellow at the Christensen Institute, and Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education research at the Christensen Institute, describe students’ social capital as their “access to, and ability to mobilize, relationships that help them further their potential and their goals”–and students’ social capital is important because relationships give students access to resources and opportunity.

“Most schools and programs wholeheartedly agree that relationships matter. But far fewer actually measure students’ social capital,” according to the report. “Oftentimes, relationships, valuable as they may be, are treated as inputs to learning and development rather than outcomes in their own right. In turn, schools routinely leave students’ access to relationships and networks to chance.”

In particular, measuring students’ social capital and relationships in four specific areas is important:
1. Quantity of relationships measures who is in a student’s network over time. The more relationships students have at their disposal, the better their chances of finding the support they need and the opportunities they deserve.

2. Quality of relationships measures how students experience the relationships they are in and the extent to which those relationships are meeting their relational, developmental, and instrumental needs. Different relationships offer different value as students’ needs evolve.

3. Structure of networks gauges the variety of people a student knows and how those people are themselves connected. Different people with varied backgrounds, expertise, and insights can provide students with a wide range of options for discovering opportunities, exploring interests, and accessing career options.

4. Ability to mobilize relationships assesses a student’s ability to seek out help when needed and to activate different relationships. Connecting a student to relationships isn’t enough. Young people must be able to nurture relationships and recognize how and when to leverage relationships as resources in their life journey.

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