Building connections for success: A developmental evaluation of social capital–learning agenda

August 29, 2023

By Rachel Chamberlain, PhD; Jingtong Pan, PhD; Tori Cirks; Oshin Khachikian, PhD; Eve Arif; Sara Mitchell 

The American Institutes for Research® (AIR®) conducted a developmental evaluation funded by the Clayton Christensen Institute to explore the extent to which different sites use the Institute’s Social Capital Playbook to implement strategies that may grow students’ social networks and to measure students’ experiences in social capital activities.

The evaluation questions focused on the strategies and supports used to implement social capital-building activities and students’ access to, and ability to, mobilize their networks as a result of these activities. These questions evolved throughout the study as programming shifted between data collection periods. The research team conducted qualitative and quantitative analyses of data from interviews with site and intermediary staff, student focus groups, student surveys, and extant program data. The student survey and focus group protocols can be found in the Appendix of this report.

Data collected from intermediaries and site staff provided the following insight into the implementation of the Social Capital Playbook strategies: 

– Intermediaries reported that sites had strong community partnerships, although staff buy-in to social capital work was mixed across sites. 

– Site staff reported that the social capital strategies integrated well with their existing work helping students build their networks and knowledge about college and careers. Respondents across sites mentioned that the relationship-mapping tool was particularly useful in helping students realize their existing networks. 

– Site staff reported a need for more support and training from the Christensen Institute and intermediaries would be helpful regarding the implementation of activities and translating the language of the Playbook for younger audiences. 

During focus groups, students across sites noted the following ways in which participation in social capital activities supported their career-connected growth: 

– Students reported that they had multiple opportunities to meet industry professionals. Although not all students initially felt confident networking with new adults, their confidence grew as they participated in more social capital activities. 

– Students felt supported by adults in their network and noted that these adults challenged them to meet new people and try new skills, such as public speaking. 

– Student responses varied regarding whether they would stay in touch with professionals they met through social capital activities, with some mentioning that they tend to rely on their existing connections for career advice (i.e., family members and teachers).

In addition to presenting high-level findings of the developmental evaluation on six sites across three intermediaries, this report offers key takeaways and directions for future work. Specifically, the report describes a learning agenda detailing key considerations including: 

– Three elements may be influential in successful implementation of social capital strategies: (a) a common understanding of social capital goals among sites and students; (b) programs that introduce and sustain quality relationships over time; and (c) program activities aligned with student interests. 

– Sites were more successful in implementing social capital strategies when they had intermediary support, access to practical resources, and organizational buy-in. 

– Social capital strategies should be responsive to program and cultural contexts, as well as to students’ current social environments and connections. 

– Students who participated in the evaluation most often cited family members as people they go to for career advice or to have conversations about careers. Many students also have these conversations with teachers, coaches, or other program staff. 

– Programs should consider providing opportunities for students to practice networking skills and conversations about future careers to build their confidence in these skills.

Suggested citation: Chamberlain, R., Pan, J., Cirks, T., Khachikian, O., Arif, E., & Mitchell, S. (2023). Building connections for success: A developmental evaluation of social capital—learning agenda. American Institutes for Research

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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"

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