How colleges can level the playing field for social capital

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Three hypothetical students with equally illustrious academic records aspire to work on Wall Street after graduating. One lives in rural Nebraska but has never visited or met anyone from New York City. Another was born and raised in New York but lives in a community that is racially and economically segregated from the financial district. The third grew up on the city’s Upper East Side with parents, grandparents and friends’ parents who worked on Wall Street. These students’ access to social capital—the strength of their relationships that provide support, information and opportunity—is unequal. In a world in which as many as 70 percent of jobs are not advertised and up to 85 percent of open positions are filled by networking, the students’ job prospects are likely to be unequal, too.

“A friend refers to [social capital] as the ‘dark matter of opportunity,’ because you see its effects, but it can be really hard to spot and measure,” said Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

Social capital can be a significant factor in college and postcollege success. Yet many first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students have limited access to these networks, which has driven racial and gender wealth gaps.

One emerging higher ed trend is a slate of educational technology interventions that promise to bolster students’ social capital. A recent paper from the Christensen Institute discusses that landscape and says the tools can help campus administrators measure and understand the extent of their students’ social capital and expand them for the neediest students.

For college staff and administrators who have not previously sought to gauge students’ social capital, the paper also offers insight on how that may be measured. That way, they can ask the nonprofit organizations or tech companies that offer the services for data transparency on those measurements.

Without a baseline understanding of the size, quality and structure of students’ current networks and their potential for mobilizing those networks, educators may find it difficult to improve their efforts to expand opportunities for their neediest students, according to the Christensen report, which Fisher co-wrote. Many of the platforms offer back-end analytics that can, for example, track not only student engagement (inputs) but results (outputs).

Why Colleges Should Care

Colleges and universities have incentive to help students cultivate their networks beyond the students’ own well-being.

“You can say, out of the goodness of your heart, that you want all students to be successful,” Fisher said. “But if you’re a less selective higher ed institution, you are saying ‘student support’ because your enrollment is dropping.”

Administrators in search of economical solutions for enhancing students’ social capital and persistence will have an array of technology tools that promise results. Since the interventions are virtual, many can be scaled far faster than hiring on-campus mentoring staff.

Some interventions, such as Mentor Collective, offer on-demand curriculum training intended to help an institution’s student and alumni mentors understand their roles and when to refer mentees to other campus services. Others, including Braven, provide low-income and first-generation college students with coaches, cohorts and postcourse mentoring that aim to keep students on track to graduate and prepared for postcollege job searches.

Still others, such as PeopleGrove, partner with universities to provide, for example, informal “flash mentoring.” The Christensen Institute’s report provides an extensive, though not comprehensive, list of other examples. Many of the platforms meet students where they are by offering a combination of synchronous video conversations with coaches or mentors, unlimited texting, or apps that reduce the friction of needing to enter passwords. Still, the interventions are not fully autonomous.

“When students access and explore these tools on their own, they can be a bit overwhelmed,” said Lisa Novack, career development director at the University of Minnesota. For that reason, her team encourages students to meet one-on-one with a staff member who can help them understand how to leverage the tools. Once the staff member directs students to platforms—PeopleGrove and Handshake, in Minnesota’s case—staff can access data on the number of student logins, applications submitted or communications with employers or alumni.

The research says that the size of a student’s network matters. That is, the more people a student knows, the greater access they have to the information those people possess. Also, the people in a student’s network have their own networks, which sometimes can provide additional opportunities. Strong ties, such as those forged with coaches and faculty members over time, are well-known to be transformative. Casual acquaintances, however, are often more likely to alert individuals to new career opportunities, according to a seminal paper by Mark Granovetter, a sociology professor at Stanford University. For this reason, data on weak ties are valuable.

The quality of a student’s network also matters. To this end, administrators could ask for data on the degree of trust students have in relationships formed on the platform or the percentage of connections made during an intervention that outlast it.

The structure of a student’s network can also be measured. A student who is connected to people from varied backgrounds will have an advantage over a student whose network is more homogenous. To assess structure, administrators could ask for data on the sources of the relationships or students’ abilities to recall connections in particular fields.

Finally, a student’s ability to mobilize their network also matters. Toward this end, administrators could ask for metrics on student comfort levels and skills in reaching out for emotional support, information or job leads.

“The network is really only as useful as your ability to mobilize it,” Fisher said.

The case for interventions that strengthen social capital is compelling. First-generation students are less likely to engage in internships and social capital–building activities, according to a report from Strada’s Center for Education Consumer Insights. College graduates of color are more likely than their counterparts to perceive increased opportunity and equity by way of digital connections, according to a Handshake study. While educational technology companies have long focused on providing tools for educational content, assessment and productivity, their efforts to provide tools for enhancing social capital is a relatively newer phenomenon.

“Though other tech tools have popped up over time, LinkedIn is still king when it comes to networking,” said Amy Bungo, career development director at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Bungo and her team teach students to use LinkedIn to reach out to alumni connections and follow up after in-person networking opportunities.

Some educational technology interventions, such as chat bots, promise results at a relatively low cost. But interventions that do not put people at the center have limitations.

“The chat bots are not going to give you a job down the line,” Fisher said. “If we routinely look for the cheapest way to provide student support through nonrelationships, we’re going to continuously fail the students who most need relationships to help them get by and get ahead.”

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