By now, many educators have probably heard about the sweeping Nature study that revealed that whom you interacted with as you grew up is a major determinant of future economic success. Specifically, children who had connections with peers from higher-income families ended up with higher incomes themselves.
Relationships between young people from different socio-economic groups are “very strongly related to children’s chances of rising out of poverty and their economic mobility,” said the study’s author, Raj Chetty, for The Harvard Gazette.
This insight, collected from what’s been described as the most comprehensive study conducted on social capital (Chetty and his team examined data from 21 billion Facebook connections covering 84% of U.S. adults ages 25 to 44) makes for striking headlines. But taking insight to action isn’t always easy…especially when it comes to building and strengthening students’ networks—a relatively nascent concept that, consequently, has limited frameworks for strategy or measurement.
Luckily, a number of schools and youth-serving nonprofits have been working for years to deepen and expand their students’ networks Here are five different strategies, sourced from those real-world examples, to help educators build and strengthen students’ relationships to boost their long-term economic prospects:
1. Get to know who your students know
Different students will have different needs and interests, and in turn, different sets of relationships. Mapping the relationships students have access to both inside and outside of the classroom can uncover untapped assets for, and overlooked gaps in, their social capital. Institutions committed to getting to know who their students know should measure:
- The number of strong-tie and weak-tie relationships a student maintains in everyday life
- Where relationships are formed (e.g., school) and with whom
- Students’ awareness of social capital, what it means, and why it matters
An example in action is Big Picture Learning, a national nonprofit that supports internship-based learning high schools, which designed a technology tool called ImBlaze to help schools manage work-based learning contacts and opportunities. But schools don’t just use ImBlaze as a productivity tool; at the start of their semester, Big Picture students are encouraged to upload their existing and new contacts that they have in local businesses through their families, communities, and other networks. From there, students across the school have visibility into the range of opportunities represented across their entire school community—not just limited to their existing, inherited networks. The tool also provides references and records on students’ previous experiences at various internship sites.
2. Ensure every student has access to a web of supportive relationships
Based on youth development research, a close-knit web of strong ties—or strong relationships—is critical to helping students thrive. An effective web of support typically contains at least one anchor or especially strong relationship. Research has shown that a web is also more supportive and resilient if the members of that web know one another, particularly for academically at-risk students or those dealing with adverse life experiences. Systems committed to shoring up strong support networks for their students should measure:
- The number of peers and adults a student turns to for different supports
- The sources of supportive relationships formed (including whether a student met someone through an existing relationship or a specific mentor) and how those individuals are connected to each other and the student
- A student’s level of comfort in seeking, activating, and mobilizing support from individuals in their network
An example in action is Connected Scholars, a research-informed course designed to meet the needs of high schools, colleges, and universities interested in implementing a mentoring program for its students. It specifically aims to equip low-income and first-generation college students. Instead of matching students with assigned mentors, students are trained to understand the value of building their social capital, then learn and practice networking and relationship-building skills to expand their networks.
3. Help students forge new connections
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. Programs aiming to expand career options or help graduates secure high-quality jobs should ensure alignment between students’ goals and the diversity of relationships put within their reach. Institutions committed to expanding students’ networks in service of expanding opportunities should measure the following:
- The number of industry connections beyond school that a student forges over the course of a program
- The attributes of those with whom relationships are formed (such as career expertise, background, and willingness to open up their own networks to students)
- Students’ access to a diversity of networks, particularly across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds
- Students’ ability to name connections across or within specific professional industries
An example-in-action is Basta, which helps first-generation college students of color navigate the job search process. The organization has carefully designed opportunities for students to exchange their job search information with one another through a variety of channels. Basta uses Slack to host industry-specific discussions where students can trade interview tips, job opportunities, and industry-relevant news with one another. The program strengthens these near-peer relationships by identifying and codifying tasks that near peers can perform in lieu of its full-time, paid Career Success Managers. For example, Basta enlists recent alumni of the program to serve as resume and cover letter-writing coaches, with alumni leveraging their own experience to help students tell their stories to employers.
4. Bring new relationships within reach for students
A powerful supply of technology-enabled tools that can expand and diversify students’ networks is increasingly within reach. Paired with integrated supports, these innovative technologies can be game-changing for schools, particularly those serving students from under-resourced communities. Systems leveraging technology to connect their students to relationships beyond their reach should measure:
- The number and type of new relationships forged through the edtech tools
- Students’ ability to document and track the growth of these relationships
- Students’ access and ability to re-engage with the individuals they connect with through technology
An example-in-action is Cajon Valley Union School District, a public school district that provides K–12 students with career-related learning. Guided by its World of Work curriculum, students have numerous opportunities to Meet-a-Pro, in which students engage in virtual tours, field trips, and industry chats with working professionals. To scale Meet-a-Pro, the school district uses a tool called Nepris, which ports virtual volunteer industry experts working around the world into classrooms. But Cajon Valley also taps networks in its own backyard. The District has populated Nepris with local connections, including both district employees that work in its central offices and family networks across the district.
5. Make sure your students remain connected and continue to expand their networks
Institutions aiming to expand access to opportunity should broker relationships that outlast discrete interventions. To do this well, systems should start to treat relationships as outcomes in their own right, quantifying and tracking them over time alongside academic metrics. Institutions committed to building students’ networks that last should measure the following:
- The number of friendships and other connections a student chooses to spend time with outside of the program or school
- The degree of student trust in and satisfaction with existing relationships
- Students’ relationship skills, including the ability to engage or re-engage with individuals in their network
An example in action is Union Capital Boston, a community-development model in Boston encouraging civic engagement and increasing access to employment through a platform that rewards member participation in community events. Once members join, UCB works hard to maintain participants’ access to social capital through frequent “Network Nights.” These include an activity called “Marketplace” where participants can request or offer help from one another.
For more in-depth information, strategic guidance, and examples in action, check out our “5 steps for building and strengthening students’ networks” playbook on WhoYouKnow.org.
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