This year, K–12 schools, colleges, and universities have doubled down on their endeavors to support students through a global health crisis, economic uncertainty, severe weather, and political turmoil. Despite these efforts, research shows that support services still fall short of meeting many students’ needs.
In the face of that shortage, some students have turned to an unexpected source of support: each other. Houston’s Rice University student-run mutual aid group, for example, distributed over $3,000 of emergency aid to students during the winter storms that devastated Texas in February 2021.
But financial resources aren’t the only assets powering mutual aid networks. Most students learned about the availability of emergency aid through their social networks, showing how a seemingly humble asset—the social capital of students’ peer networks—can contain extraordinary resources, even to the point of ensuring survival.
As schools develop strategies for supporting students to both survive and thrive, the power of peer social capital is a lesson worth remembering. Across the entire high school to career pipeline, peer networks are an immense, but still latent, resource in the student success equation.
Fortunately, a host of tools and programs are helping schools start to leverage peer-to-peer connections as part of a robust, and far more networked, strategy to support learners toward successful futures that they define for themselves. These models feature peers serving as:
social support to foster belonging, identity formation, and social and emotional skills;
academic support to drive learning outcomes and keep each other on track;
guidance support to expand options and ease transitions;
and mental health support to promote wellbeing and reduce loneliness.
With a range of emerging approaches to adopt and adapt, K–12 and postsecondary leaders have a tremendous opportunity to activate the latent social capital in peer networks to improve students’ experiences and outcomes. Whether they succeed depends on where and how schools activate peer networks, and for what purposes. This paper details five considerations leaders will need to keep in mind.
The innovative tools and programs in this report reflect the fact that it’s networks—not just diplomas and degrees—that lead to opportunities and fulfilling lives. Peer connections are a critical resource as K–12 schools and postsecondary programs look to support students’ wellbeing and growth, enrich their learning experiences, and expand career options.