Building “Connection Currency” for More Equitable Opportunity

Monday, July 20, 2020
Tiffani Williams
Senior Associate

The current state of the U.S. economy, particularly as a result of the pandemic crisis, is a commentary on how the land of opportunity has become a much more difficult environment in which to navigate and thrive. In particular, finding success in the labor market—securing a high-paying job and advancing in a career over time—is not entirely the direct result of effort and drive. It takes more than just any postsecondary degree or credential to find success. 

In a competitive labor market, landing a job is often tied directly to the type of credential and an individual’s access to economic and social resources. The ability to tap into a network—a group of people you are connected to personally or professionally that can provide information, counsel, and inroads to employers—is critical. This type of “connection currency” is known as social capital.

An emerging body of research has confirmed the value of social capital for navigating the labor market. Yet despite its critical importance, social capital is not something that everyone has or can access. In fact, those with the most extensive and most powerful networks, and the greatest amount of social capital to leverage, are typically those who come from advantaged backgrounds: high-income individuals who attend elite institutions and form insular networks. While there is opportunity to build significant social capital through exposure to the cultural and network resources available in higher education, often deemed the “great equalizer,” there is more work to be done to combat inequality. Postsecondary institutions can and should facilitate growth in social capital by providing formal, no-cost opportunities for students to:

– Grow and leverage a network;

– Establish agency through autonomy and informed decision-making; and

– Navigate the labor market to secure work-based learning opportunities and jobs.

These opportunities should be geared toward students of color and those that come from low socioeconomic backgrounds that are otherwise unable to access these types of resources. Without formal mechanisms in place, education institutions risk reproducing and reinforcing the problem of socioeconomic inequality and social immobility. And we risk positioning the most privileged students to continue to succeed in professional careers like those of their parents, while students from lower socioeconomic strata continue to work to survive.

The United States is currently experiencing the dual forces of a global pandemic and a sweeping movement for racial justice. Although it will be difficult to address this issue in a virtual environment, it is particularly important that leaders get creative and prioritize creating network-building opportunities for students who currently lack access to “normal” ways of doing so (through summer employment, community organizations, etc.). Those most often marginalized in education and the workforce, including people of color, adult learners, low-wage earners, and those that need to upskill or reskill, have been hit the hardest by the economic impact of the pandemic. The gulf between the haves and the have-nots is evident and wide. As America simultaneously confronts its systemic racism and inequality, and looks to get its economy back on track, increasing social capital can emerge as an opportunity to level the playing field in career and economic status. 

As states and higher education institutions begin to navigate their role in supporting an equitable economic recovery, there are a few strategies worth considering to facilitate social capital development for the students who would benefit from it the most. 

Expand statewide access to career development supports.

Efforts to increase social capital access are likely to be more successful if larger systems signal their importance. By making social capital development a priority, states and regions set the tone for institutions to implement supports to help students effectively build their networks and explore careers. Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars program, for example, is a statewide initiative that provides financial, navigational, and network support to low-income students at participating colleges or universities in the state. Students in the program receive step-by-step guidance and support to ensure that they succeed in college, earn a degree, and move on to a career. This includes providing current Scholars with access to a growing network of 21st Century Scholars alumni, who provide individual mentorship and offer guidance in navigating career exploration. 

Target students of color and those from low-income backgrounds.

Though all students need access to social capital in order to succeed, it is of particular importance for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds, who often enter postsecondary education without existing connections and experiences facilitated by their families or well-resourced high schools. Institutions should specifically direct efforts to help students develop social capital at these students. Brooklyn College’s Magner Career Center, provides its students (75 percent of whom depend on some form of financial aid and 45 percent of whom are from families in which neither parent completed college) career counseling and access to internships and other work experiences at elite companies typically reserved for those from elite schools. Over time, the network has grown as alumni of the program, many of whom now hold powerful positions in well-established careers, have remained involved in supporting current students with internships and advice. According to a survey of recent graduates, over 40 percent of 2018 graduates had internships while attending Brooklyn College, compared with just 23 percent the year before the center opened in 2004. 

Leverage near-peer mentors to strengthen networks.

Near-peer models, in which students are advised by individuals who are close in age and share similar academic and life experiences, have been shown to be an effective means to helping students achieve their academic and career goals. Achieve Atlanta, a non-profit organization that provides numerous supports to students from Atlanta Public Schools (APS) around college access and success, partners closely with nearly a dozen high-feeder institutions that enroll a high proportion of their graduates. Each campus has a college support team, which includes a liaison who supports a peer ambassador program. Ambassadors hold events throughout the year, including both social events to build relationships among the cohort of APS graduates and learning sessions on topics to prepare them to successfully navigate the transition to the workforce, such as resume writing and personal finance. Once students have graduated, they have an opportunity to serve as an alumni ambassador to reach back into higher education and continue to mentor students – perpetuating the network’s growth and value. 

Similarly, Project MALES, a research consortium at the University of Texas at Austin, oversees an intergenerational, near-peer mentorship program for Hispanic males, who have been historically one of the most underrepresented student populations in higher education. Faculty provide mentorship to graduate students, who in turn mentor undergraduate students, who mentor local high school students. While not all mentors are male, nearly all are people of color to provide students with a space where they can see themselves being successful. Mentors meet weekly to advise students on their journey to and through higher education, and undergraduate mentors receive training through a credit-bearing course on mentorship and the systemic barriers that the students they serve are facing. The program helps to build a sense of community on campus and equips students with the skills and experiences to propel them towards a successful future.

Prioritize virtual connections to build momentum through the pandemic.

Traditionally, social capital is most effectively developed through sustained in-person interactions, both formal and informal. In the age of physical distancing, opportunities for such interactions are substantially diminished. Although many summer internships were canceled as the impact of the pandemic spread, many other companies and institutions have quickly pivoted to provide virtual internship and mentoring opportunities for students. State leadership can also play a role here. North Carolina’s COVID-19 Student Response Corps matches college students with virtual public service internships in local government and nonprofit organizations. The initiative offers the dual benefit of valuable experiences for students and needed additional capacity for organizations struggling to manage COVID-19 response efforts. Undergraduates at Brown University developed Intern From Home, a website that connects companies offering virtual internships with students seeking them. The platform also began offering virtual “Cohorts” to participants, which are free discussion-based learning opportunities through which students can connect with peers and experts on topics of interest. Though their experiences will be different from traditional in-person internships, students still benefit from real work experience and have the opportunity to build connections with employers and fellow interns.