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. Another was born and raised in New York but lives in a community racially and economically separated from the financial district. The third grew up on the city’s Upper East Side with parents, grandparents and relatives of friends who worked on Wall Street. These students’ access to social capital, that is, the strength of their relationships that provide them with support, information and opportunity, is uneven. In a world where up to 70% of jobs are unadvertised and up to 85% of vacancies are filled through networking, student employment prospects are also likely to be uneven.

“A friend talks about [social capital] like 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 an important factor in academic and postgraduate success. Yet many first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students have limited access to these networks, which has led to racial and gender wealth gaps.

An emerging trend in higher education is a list of educational technological interventions that promise to build students’ social capital. A recent article from the Christensen Institute discusses this landscape and indicates that the tools can help campus administrators measure and understand the extent of their students’ social capital and develop it for students most in need.

For college staff and administrators who have never sought to assess student social capital, the paper also offers insight into how it can be measured. That way, they can ask the nonprofits or technology companies that offer the services for data transparency on those metrics.

According to the Christensen report, which Fisher co-wrote. Many platforms offer back-end analytics that can, for example, track not only student engagement (inputs) but also outcomes (outputs).

Why Colleges Should Care

Colleges and universities are encouraged to help students cultivate their networks beyond their own well-being.

“You can say, wholeheartedly, that you want all students to be successful,” Fisher said. “But if you’re a less selective higher education institution, you say ‘student support’ because your enrollment is down.”

Administrators looking for cost-effective solutions to improve social capital and student retention will have an array of technological tools at their disposal that promise results. Because the interventions are virtual, many can be scaled much faster than hiring on-campus mentoring staff.

Some interventions, such as Mentor Collective, provide on-demand training 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 students with coaching, cohorts, and post-course mentoring that aim to keep students on track to graduate and prepare for the job search. postgraduate employment.

Still others, like PeopleGrove, partner with universities to provide, for example, informal “speed mentoring”. The Christensen Institute report provides a long, though not exhaustive, list of other examples. Many platforms meet students where they are by offering a combination of synchronous video chats with coaches or mentors, unlimited texting, or apps that reduce the friction of entering passwords. However, the interventions are not totally autonomous.

“When students access these tools and explore them on their own, they can get a little overwhelmed,” said Lisa Novack, director of career development at the University of Minnesota. For this reason, his team encourages students to meet one-on-one with a staff member who can help them understand how to take advantage of the tools. Once the staff member refers students to the platforms – PeopleGrove and Handshake, in the case of Minnesota – the staff can access data on the number of student connections, applications submitted, or communications with employers or old.

Research indicates that the size of a student’s network matters. In other words, the more people a student knows, the more access they have to the information those people have. Additionally, members of a student’s network have their own networks, which can sometimes provide additional opportunities. Strong bonds, 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, weak link data is valuable.

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

A student’s network structure can also be measured. A student who is connected to people from a variety of backgrounds will have an advantage over a student whose network is more homogeneous. To assess structure, administrators might request data on the sources of relationships or students’ abilities to remember connections in particular areas.

Finally, a student’s ability to mobilize their network also counts. To this end, administrators could request measurements of students’ comfort level and skills in seeking emotional support, information, or job leads.

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

The arguments for interventions that build social capital are compelling. According to a report by Strada’s Center for Education Consumer Insights, first-generation college students are less likely to participate in internships and social capital-building activities. According to research from Handshake, college graduates of color are more likely than their peers to perceive increased opportunity and equity through digital connections. While educational technology companies have long focused on providing tools for educational content, assessment, and productivity, their efforts to provide tools for improving social capital are a relatively new phenomenon.

“Although other technology tools have come along over time, LinkedIn is still the king when it comes to networking,” said Amy Bungo, director of career development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Bungo and his team teach students how to use LinkedIn to reach out to alumni connections and follow up on in-person networking opportunities.

Some educational technological interventions, such as chatbots, promise results at relatively low cost. But interventions that do not put people at the center have limits.

“Chatbots aren’t going to give you a full-on job,” Fisher said. “If we routinely look for the cheapest way to provide student support through non-relationships, we will continually fail students who most need connections to help them get through it and get on with it. ‘before.”