Students face an ‘opportunity gap.’ Here’s how to close it.

Researchers are building strategies that let faculty and other campus educators measure a student's social capital
Mahnaz R. Charania, Clayton Christensen Institute
Mahnaz R. Charania, Clayton Christensen Institute

Social capital, or who a student knows and can rely on for support, is often a key component of success in school, higher education and the workforce.

But forces beyond a student’s control can make it harder for them to build such a network, creating what education researcher Mahnaz R. Charania calls an “opportunity gap.”

That’s why researchers are developing ways that college educators, community organizations and other adults can map a student’s social network, which will help young people create personal connections that lead to greater avenues for personal success.

“We know these opportunities are unequally distributed,” says Mahnaz R. Charania, a senior education researcher at the Clayton Christensen Institute, a think tank that studies disruption in various sectors of society. “This can cause alarming gaps in what students are able to access during their educational journey and after they graduate from college.”

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Charania and her colleagues are building formative assessments that colleges educators can use to determine whether students’ have adequate personal resources.

This need for this information has become more urgent since students were forced to shift to online learning and were away from faculty and peers who may be their primary source of social-emotional and academic support, Charania says.

“COVID has exposed deep systemic inequities that were present far before 2020,” she says. “These are not just academic achievement gaps, these are gaps in who students know and the resources they can access through those relationships.”

How to assess social capital

Charania’s framework for measuring social capital has four dimensions:

  • Quantity of relationships: Who do students know?
  • Quality of relationships: Are adults offering children what they actually what need?
  • Structure of network: Are students connected with a variety of adults?
  • Ability to mobilize relationships: Do students know how to seek help when they need it?

“It’s not enough to put relationships within students’ reach,” Charania says. “They also need to be able to engage in authentic relationships when they leave school.”

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Among the measurements educators can implement as soon as schools reopen is “relationship mapping.” The Making Caring Common initiative guides faculty and counselors in having students map out who they know and trust on and off campus.

Near peers, such as older students, are as important in providing mentorship to college students as are faculty and other adults.

Internships provide another key opportunity for college students to make important professional connections that can eventually lead to jobs.

How COVID impacts relationships

The adjustments campus leaders will make in the coming school year to prevent the spread of coronavirus will have an impact on the relationships students form and cultivate.

For example, extra- and co-curricular activities—which Charania calls a “critical pathway” for students in building social networks—may be eliminated or restricted, preventing students from accessing mentors and “near peers.”

Campus leaders this summer should, therefore, be trying to figure out how to maintain these connections. For example, students can use software platforms, such as Nepris, to communicate online with professionals across various industries.

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The platform also allows students to track how many connections they’re making to ensure they are meeting a diversity of professionals.

Another tool, trovvit, allows students to build a portfolio of their social networks. This makes building social capital a very explicit process, Charania says.

“We need to redefine what student success looks like,” she says. “We need to make sure we include metrics that position students for social and economic mobility.”


Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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