Who you know makes a huge difference in your success in life, and middle- and higher-income students have more access to social circles that can help them succeed. For equity initiatives to fully reach the students who can use a leg up, providing access to social capital is one thing colleges and universities can do to increase their success in helping all students achieve their potential.

All educators are on the same page about wanting to help students to succeed. After a tough couple of years, we have learned the importance of increased mental health, tutoring, and financial services to help struggling college students. But one factor in student success has been less emphasized: the access to social capital. Some higher education services begin to address social capital, but usually not in a directed, intentional way. Now may be the time to look at this factor to see how schools can encourage underserved students to apply, enroll, and graduate.

What is social capital?

Social capital is the network of people to which each of us is connected, both individually and through organizations and family structures. The value of social capital is that it gives people access to resources, guidance, jobs, money, information, and social relationships that can benefit them economically, psychologically, and socially as they move around in society.

People from lower-income backgrounds often don’t have as many connections to employers, colleges, social clubs, banks, teachers, role models, and other interpersonal and institutional contacts. Studies have shown that social capital can determine whether a student drops out or graduates. If we can focus more on making a wide variety of connections available to students, we can help those with less social capital to put more of it in the “bank.”

Social Capital and College Enrollment

Getting admitted and enrolled in college is easier for those with more social capital. For admissions departments, augmenting the social networks of underserved students by adding structured interpersonal connections to helpful college counselors, mentors, current students, financial aid offices, clubs or groups, etc., can help bolster their chances of applying, being admitted, and becoming enrolled in college. Then, colleges need to focus more services on bringing valuable networks into students’ lives through partnerships with industry groups, building networks within the university, and connecting parents, alumni, and other “outside” supporters to the students to help them succeed.

According to a report from Educause, five types of social capital can help students to flourish:

  1. Caring friends and adults: the emotional support from peers, friends, family members, and close relationships with non-related adults is a foundation of social belonging.
  2. Near-peers and role models: older siblings, relatives, or students can serve as models of how to function in the world. But also, famous people from the media, history, or local leaders that a student admires—even just by reading about them—can serve to inspire.
  3. Mentors and Coaches: school counselors, teachers, formal or informal mentors, and others can be sources of information, emotional support, and validation.
  4. Networks and weak ties: the networks around us of family and friends provide a “net” that is supportive, but so do the weaker links of acquaintances and the people they know.
  5. Resources and Connectors: support for students can also come from the resources they can access, especially if these resources act as connectors to help students further. These resources can help with information, financial or material support, services, or social connection.

Colleges can’t provide all the social capital that each individual student needs, but they can help to support and foster more social capital, especially for students who need a boost to succeed. Putting a focus on making connections that surround a potential student through the application process is one way that recruitment offices can help. Better outcomes will result if students begin to build up the investment from social networks that will help hold them up and push them higher as they move through school and into life after college.

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