Quarterly spotlight on students’ social capital: Updates from the field on measuring students’ networks

By Julia Freeland Fisher, Reprinted from the Christensen Institute Newsletter

Dear Friends,

For the years we’ve been studying students’ access to and ability to mobilize social capital, by far the most common question we receive is “How do you measure it?”

The “it” in that question is often evasive. Boiling relationships down to a single metric feels not only challenging, but dismissive of the nuances inherent to human connection. At the same time, by not measuring students’ social capital—a valuable currency that predicts everything from economic mobility to long-term health—these critical measures will all too often be ignored in favor of more familiar success metrics. That’s why, back in July 2020, Dr. Mahnaz R. Charania and I published The missing metrics: Emerging practices for measuring students’ relationships and networks. In it, we detailed the empirical research behind measuring social capital, and shared practical measurement approaches that leading innovators had developed.

In the three years since releasing Missing Metrics, the field has seen significant developments in surveys, other measurement strategies, and breakthrough research. A few particularly noteworthy examples include:

  • 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. Search Institute also published an accompanying user guide and technical manual to assist organizations in evaluating and building young people’s support networks.
  • Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank, published “How We Rise.” This research analyzes findings from a survey developed by research partner Econometrica to assess individuals’ education, job, and housing networks and how those networks impacted their chances of economic mobility. (Check out the survey methodology here.)
  • A 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 in tapping into alumni and professional networks.
  • Basta, which works to combat underemployment among first-generation college graduates, developed an online career diagnostic and navigation tool called Seekr. The diagnostic includes questions about students’ access to and confidence in building social capital, adapted from Search Institute’s SCALE survey linked above. By taking the diagnostic, students can see where they are in their career journey and the sorts of activities and networks they may need to seek out to get closer to landing a job.
  • Tech platforms like PeopleGrove and Handshake not only started to provide their higher education partners with more nuanced networking data than most universities collect on their own, they’ve also begun to share what they’re learning more broadly. For example, Handshake releases monthly “Network Trends” reports, along with research on Gen Z’s job-hunting preferences and network behaviors. PeopleGrove released its first-ever “Social Capital Impact Report” based on surveys of students and alumni using the platform.
  • Harvard’s Opportunity Insights organization, directed by economic mobility researcher Raj Chetty, created the Social Capital Atlas, an open-access tool to “explore social capital in your community” and its connection to economic mobility through a data visualization interface. In building and analyzing millions of Facebook data points, researchers identified that “economic connectedness”—as measured by cross-class connections on Facebook—was a leading predictor of economic mobility.
  • In another recent study, LinkedIn partnered with researchers from MIT to analyze which connections on the platform were most helpful to jobseekers, surfacing (and confirming) the fact that moderately weak ties—that is, jobseekers’ loose acquaintanceship networks—appear most helpful in gaining access to new jobs.

Advances like these over the past few years mark important strides toward measuring students’ networks in more equitable, meaningful, and actionable ways. Check out our updated Missing Metrics report to learn more, including an updated list of sample survey items from the field. And please don’t hesitate to share examples of measures you’re seeing in the field!

Field webinar alert! From College to Career: Student Internships and Alumni Networking Experiences, hosted by Strada Education Foundation, May 17, 2-3pm ET. Register here:https://stradaeducation.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_vE11lDjfTtmIYnygouWi-A

College internships can be a powerful way to help students succeed beyond completion. Expanding upon prior research on work-based learning, paid internship opportunities and their association with student outcomes and future earnings, Strada’s latest research examines responses from nearly 60,000 students who completed the National Survey of Student Engagement Career and Workforce Preparation Topical Module in 2022. The analysis identifies gaps between first-year students’ intentions to participate in internships and senior student participation. The study also revealed that senior students who participate in internships feel significantly more confident communicating their knowledge and skills to potential employers–and those who pair internships with alumni networking feel even stronger confidence. This webinar will feature findings from the research and discussions about how postsecondary providers can help students access internships and build relationships that boost their confidence in communicating with employers.

Read the latest on approaches across K-20 that can maintain networks of support and opportunity for students:

The far reach of near peers, SmartBrief

5 innovation trends worth watching in 2023, eSchool News

From ideas to action: 5 strategies to build students’ networks, Christensen Institute

Building Professional Social Capital for Black Learners and Workers, JFF

Why the ‘talent shortage’ is really a shortage of social capital, Fast Company

Report Emphasizes the Importance of Professional Social Capital, Diverse

It’s Not Who You Know. It’s Who Knows You. Higher Ed Spotlight

Innovative Pilot Program To Help Low-Wage Job Seekers Build Social Capital, PR Web

Students Want More Workplace Skills From Colleges. Will Higher Ed Adjust? EdSurge

Regaining What Was Lost: Program Creates Pathways To The Financial Sector, Forbes

nXu upcoming information session on middle and high school curriculum and assessment system, nXu

Many Americans Have a Shortage of Social Capital, Foundation for Economic Education

Thanks so much for reading and until next time!

My best,

Julia Freeland Fisher



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