People-powered pathways: Lessons in how to build students’ social capital through career-connected learning

July 19, 2023

Executive Summary

What will it take to ensure that all students, especially those furthest from opportunity, are on a path to promising and fulfilling careers?

Schools are increasingly engaging in career-connected learning to increase career exposure and skill development. But focusing on skills alone will fall short, particularly if schools hope to address long-standing opportunity gaps. Awareness of possible careers and access to jobs depends not only on learning and achievement, but on personal and professional relationships that serve as gateways to career opportunities. Opportunity sits at the intersection of students’ human capital—what they know and can do—and their social capital—who they know and can depend on for support and access. To launch a career, students need more than skills—they also need people willing to take a bet on their potential.

With the aim of helping leaders implement effective, equitable strategies for building students’ social capital, this report offers field-tested considerations for piloting social capital building within existing career pathways initiatives. Our observations draw from an 18-month pilot during which we leveraged our social capital playbook to provide direct support to a group of three intermediary organizations—Education Strategy Group, Generation Schools Network, and Hawai‘i P-20—collectively supporting 20 sites in the K–12 career pathways space. In the course of the pilot, we sought to understand how schools and nonprofits can make social capital building an explicit, effective, and equitable component of existing career[1]connected learning models.

Schools and programs that are interested in expanding students’ networks can consider 10 lessons learned from the pilot:

1. Stick with relationship outcomes: Use relationship data to develop goals and measure progress.

2. Audit your current practices: Look for untapped opportunities to strengthen students’ social capital within existing career-connected activities.

3. Prepare to build, not just buy: Given scarce off-the-shelf curricula, allocate time and resources for social capital training and curriculum development.

4. Honor relational norms and values: Adapt your approaches to both culture and context.

5. Incorporate immersive experiences: Pair social capital concepts with practice and opportunities to build real-world relationships.

6. Skills and access both matter: To seed positive interactions, develop communication skills alongside access to relationships.

7. Prime employers to share their social capital: Shifting employee volunteers’ mindsets can orient them to build relationships and share resources.

8. Source social capital across your enterprise: Individual social capital is a critical, but limited, lever for scale.

9. Embed social capital into systems: Enthusiastic practitioners foster change, but infrastructure maintains it.

10. Benchmark collective progress: Communities of practice build practitioner confidence.

Equipped with these lessons, educators can build models that embed both career know-how and know-who into students’ journeys, further expanding their access to opportunity.

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Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of Disruptive Innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks"

Robert Markle

Robert Markle, PhD is a research manager at the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on increasing awareness and adoption of emerging practices for expanding students’ access to opportunity, economic mobility, and personal well-being. Given Dr. Markle’s background in implementation science, he is interested in how relationship-based initiatives can be optimized for local contexts to maximize their effectiveness.

Anna Arsenault

Anna Arsenault is an education research consultant at the Christensen Institute. Her work focuses on integrating social capital, disruptive innovation, and youth development research with practice. She advises organizations on developing and implementing strategies and activities to build and strengthen young peoples’ networks.

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