As the Biden administration commits to expanding resources to college students and postsecondary institutions with the fewest financial resources, there’s no shortage of proposals on how best to put those dollars to work to improve college access. But most of these big bets suffer a blindspot: more equitable pathways to opportunity will require access to networks, not just credentials.
The relationship between networks—or social capital—and social mobility is well-documented. Still, conversations about improving postsecondary outcomes tend to skirt the topic of networks altogether. It’s politely (or blindly) assumed that access to a network is wrapped up in access to a college degree.
Mistaking contact for connection
Although many college campuses will soon return to bustling social environments, slim but troubling data from before the pandemic suggests that those environments didn’t in fact translate into reliable, much less equitable, access to supportive or lasting social connections. For example, among postsecondary alumni, fewer than half of students report having had a mentor in college and only 9% of graduates report that their alumni network was helpful. At 4-year schools, first-generation students report lower levels of a sense of belonging than their continuing generation peers. And students of color are 34% less likely to cite having a professor as a mentor compared to their white peers.
Given that networks drive persistence in school and job opportunities after school, data points like these should be troubling to leaders betting on college degrees as a ticket to social mobility.
Luckily, however, research is starting to show how institutions can become more deliberate, equitable, and effective brokers of social capital. My colleague Dr. Mahnaz Charania and I summarized these trends in a new playbook for postsecondary leaders, 5 steps to building and strengthening students’ networks.
Drawing on that research, here are a few promising strategies to better understand how students are experiencing relationships on campus and to ensure all students have access to networks they need to thrive on campus and in their careers:
Take stock of students’ existing connections: Start with the awareness that all students are members of existing networks. Although institutions need to pay more attention to the health of their students’ networks, making broad assumptions about the composition of students’ networks based on their demographics can backfire. In fact, programs designed for entire subgroups can miss critical assets in students’ lives. As Tony Jack’s groundbreaking research has shown, low-income students arrive at college campuses with different social and cultural capital depending on their high school experiences, rather than just their socioeconomic status. Additionally, data has suggested that students’ sense of belonging (and associated connections) can vary significantly by their identity and the institution they attend, not just their demographic traits.
In other words, rather than assuming that all members of a given subgroup, such as first-generation or minority students, have the same assets or needs, institutions should ask students about their individual experiences and networks. Colleges can urge advisors, faculty, and student support staff to use strategies like relationship-mapping and social network mapping. These can not only help students reflect on who they have in their corner and can turn to persist and meet their goals, but can also lend valuable insights to student support staff and faculty about the existing resources their students’ possess.
Shore up support networks: Affirm students’ identities and empower them to build webs of support. Building on those existing assets and lending students’ additional supports is critical work. Given the indisputable link between these holistic supports and student persistence, more and more colleges are working to shore up students’ webs of support by hiring student support staff, recruiting peer mentors, and bolstering mental health supports. But well-intentioned as these efforts may be, they again risk operating from a deficit lens by assuming that students facing challenges or at risk of dropping out need to be “fixed.” To avoid this trap, student support services can also draw inspiration from models like Beyond 12’s “co-active” college coaching approach and Dr. Tori Weiston Serdan’s Critical Mentoring Agenda. Both operate from the philosophy that students are not “broken” and instead treat student support and mentoring efforts as opportunities to recognize the assets in students’ existing networks and identities. For example, Beyond 12 coaches walk alongside college students to reflect on their existing webs of support and consider who else they might turn to on campus to help them achieve their goals.
Colleges hoping to empower students to forge and strengthen their own support networks can also look to programs like Connected Scholars. Connected Scholars is a research-informed course consisting of 15 lessons focused on helping students to identify supportive relationships within their networks, identify and recruit new mentors, and develop and maintain a relationship with those mentors. Students who completed four Connected Scholars sessions on learning how to recruit mentors at the start of college had a higher GPA at the end of their first school year.
Expand networks to expand opportunities: Integrate network-building into classroom and cohort design. “Networking” may sound like a bad word, but research shows that students today believe connections are essential for navigating their career journeys. In a qualitative study of students’ experiences in career pathways programs, researchers found that young people of color, those whose families have immigrated to the United States in search of new opportunities, and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds report knowing they can’t progress on their career journeys alone. But many also described striving and struggling to form connections that offer the social capital needed to navigate entry into work opportunities and to advance their work-related goals.
Colleges can alleviate this struggle by taking the chance out of chance encounters in the classroom and beyond. For example, tools like Riipen help faculty integrate working professionals into projects and coursework, in turn exposing students to real-world connections in the normal course of earning academic credits. Colleges can also draw inspiration from innovative education to employment organizations that are building peer and near-peer cohorts that purposefully expand one another’s horizons and future job prospects. For example, Basta 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, such as Slack, and to host industry-specific discussions where students can trade interview tips, job opportunities, and industry-relevant news with one another. Models like these ensure that peer networks are not just a byproduct of campus life or chance encounters in the classroom, but a core asset powering students’ ability to navigate their futures.
Throughout these steps, it’s also critical to keep in mind that measurement and equity go hand in hand. At each step, colleges can measure the health of students’ networks, and analyze that data across various subgroups, to ensure that their efforts are making headway in the right direction.
Steps like these—paired with better relationship-focused measures—can help more campuses move beyond the familiar slogan of “relationships matter” toward a deliberate, innovative strategy that ensures networks are more equally distributed across all students, not just among white, wealthy, or more outgoing students. A strong and diverse network is a rich reservoir that grows students’ career options and ensures they can flourish on and beyond campus. It’s time that a student’s network becomes an explicit, rather than unspoken, asset in the college access and success equation.
Julia Freeland Fisher is director of education for the Christensen Institute