Young people need the right resources at their disposal to navigate uncertain times and to pursue their evolving interests and passions. All too often, however, a critical resource in the opportunity equation repeatedly goes unmeasured: students’ social capital.
Social capital describes students’ access to, and ability to mobilize, relationships that help them further their potential and their goals. Just like skills and knowledge, relationships offer resources that drive access to opportunity.
Most schools and programs wholeheartedly agree that relationships matter. But far fewer actually measure students’ social capital. Oftentimes, relationships, valuable as they may be, are treated as inputs to learning and development rather than outcomes in their own right. In turn, schools routinely leave students’ access to relationships and networks to chance.
To address this gap, a host of early innovators across K–12, postsecondary, and workforce development are making important strides toward purposefully building and measuring students’ social capital in an effort to expand access to opportunity. Drawing on those emerging practices, this paper offers a framework for measuring social capital grounded in both research and practice.
Relationships and networks are admittedly complex. But measuring across multiple dimensions of students’ networks can help educators and administrators make sense of that complexity. Schools and systems that are starting to prioritize students’ social capital rarely use a single metric to gauge how students access and experience relationships. Instead, these programs are capturing data across four interrelated dimensions. These four dimensions include:
1. Quantity of relationships measures who is in a student’s network over time. The more relationships students have at their disposal, the better their chances of finding the support they need and the opportunities they deserve.
2. Quality of relationships measures how students experience the relationships they are in and the extent to which those relationships are meeting their relational, developmental, and instrumental needs. Different relationships offer different value as students’ needs evolve.
3. Structure of networks gauges the variety of people a student knows and how those people are themselves connected. Different people with varied backgrounds, expertise, and insights can provide students with a wide range of options for discovering opportunities, exploring interests, and accessing career options.
4. Ability to mobilize relationships assesses a student’s ability to seek out help when needed and to activate different relationships. Connecting a student to relationships isn’t enough. Young people must be able to nurture relationships and recognize how and when to leverage relationships as resources in their life journey.
Diversity of students’ networks—across racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and professional lines— undergirds all four of these dimensions. Measuring for diversity can ensure that rather than constraining students to a narrow professional path, a fixed set of learning experiences, or a homogeneous network, diverse relationships open new doors and perspectives at various junctures of a student’s journey.
The early innovators who are starting to measure these various dimensions of students’ social capital are taking a first, important step toward intentionally building students’ relationships as outcomes to their learning and development. Over time, additional, validated strategies for measuring these four dimensions of social capital are needed to systematically reshape how schools and programs define student success and account for the critical role that networks play in the opportunity equation.
Looking ahead, this initial work can begin to drive the next wave of much-needed research and practice partnerships, as well as investments, to support the development and scaling of innovations that prioritize students’ relationships alongside academic gains. By intentionally measuring students’ social capital, education systems can start to build an evidence base for closing the social side of opportunity gaps and ensuring all students are supported equitably in their path to economic prosperity.