What is social capital, and how can educators help students build it?
| August 28, 2020
Before summer break ended, my 15-year-old daughter wrote up eight burning questions, donned a mask and met with a local architect for her first informational interview.
Certainly the answers to most of her questions could’ve been found online. Yet like the high school guidance counselors who introduced me to informational interviewing years ago, I understand that making connections with professionals in her area of interest is at least as important as getting questions answered.
That day she took a step in building her social capital.
Simply put, social capital is the people we know.
Nathan Boyd, director of African American student and parent services for South Bend Community School Corporation, expands on this definition. “Our social networks improve our lives and make us more productive by creating a nurturing support system that provides greater access to resources and motivation to succeed,” says Boyd in a guest post for the National Association of Secondary Principals.
Closing the social capital gap for children from marginalized communities
Yet opportunities to build the network Boyd describes aren’t within reach for all young people as they approach the workforce.
“On average, children from low-income families have measurably smaller networks along some dimensions and are much less likely to know adults working in high-paying professions,” writes Julia Freeland Fischer in her book, “Who you know, unlocking innovations that expand students’ networks.”
Even students who graduate from top colleges are having trouble finding employment or are underemployed, largely due to lack of connections, explains Heather Wetzler co-founder of Cue Career, a career exploration and workforce development platform.
For educators to best help students from marginalized communities, Wetzler advocates starting early to drive home the importance of developing a network and speaking in terms the students you’re working with can relate to.
Helping younger students begin to build social capital in school
Schools have a crucial role to play in building social capital according to Aimée Eubanks Davis, founder and CEO of Braven, an organization dedicated to solving the education-to-employment gap in higher education.
“While education — both K-12 and higher ed — have the potential to be the great equalizer, we know that not all students have access to the same opportunities, networks, and social capital,” said Eubanks Davis says in an interview with Forbes contributor Colin Seale.
“In order to close this gap, we need K-12 to teach students professional competencies that are required in the workplace like working in teams, problem solving, and telling your own narrative — and we should do this early on, just like we teach English and math.”
Social capital is so critical for young people from traditionally marginalized communities that Calculus Roundtable Founder and Executive Director Jim Hollis has built it into their methodology.
At his organization, which helps districts produce programs and procedures that increase the number of children of color completing higher level math and science skills, this begins as young as fifth grade. Students are incentivized by points for helping and asking for help from other classmates encouraging them to practice reciprocity, a key component of social capital.
“Dr. Jeremy Frank from NASA joined our Zoom class and told us about his project making drones for the International Space Station. We promptly pinged into a live feed of the space station and saw his project (in yellow) in real time,” said Jim Hollis, founder and executive director of Calculus Roundtable.
Creating opportunities for students and professionals to connect
Taking advantage of all the high-tech resources of Silicon Valley and beyond, Calculus Roundtable forges partnerships that not only introduce but team students with professionals from high-profile companies and organizations like NASA, MIT and Stanford University. Often, these students don’t realize the level of contact they’ve made as they collaborate on projects like building a microscope to study DNA with a Stanford researcher.
Getting students to connect a familiar face with top organizations and companies is one of Hollis’ strategies to break down barriers. Now, when they think of NASA — it’s “I know Jeremy from NASA,” instead of something abstract or out of reach.
Similarly, Wetzler encourages students to make an association between the businesses and brands they know and people who work there. For example, she had a group of girls to do a search for L’Oréal on LinkedIn to see the different people who work there and what they do. This is one example of making building social capital relatable to a particular demographic of adolescents.
“Create a LinkedIn profile and reach out to professionals on the platform,” Wetzler tells the young people she works with through Cue Career. “Being a student has power, people want to help you! They’re often more open and responsive to a student who reaches out on LinkedIn than another professional.”
A guide to help educators map a student’s social capital
Along with other researchers, Mahnaz R. Charania, a senior education researcher at the Clayton Christensen Institute, a think tank that studies disruption in various sectors of society, is developing tools that would allow college educators, community organizations and other adults to map and assess a student’s social network.
In a University Business blog, she sets out four key questions to help educators pinpoint strong and weak areas in a given student’s social capital.
- Quantity of relationships: Who do students know?
- Quality of relationships: Are adults offering children what they actually need?
- Structure of network: Are students connected with a variety of adults?
- Ability to mobilize relationships: Do students know how to seek help when they need it?
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