Over the years, my team and I have wrestled with a particularly thorny question facing school systems: if we know that relationships and social capital matter immensely to students’ short- and long-term outcomes, and that it’s one of the leading predictors of economic mobility, why aren’t we measuring it? And equally importantly, how might schools measure social capital in a manageable, practical, and accurate manner?

We’ve published most of our thinking in our “Missing Metrics” report, first released in 2021 and updated with fresh examples and analysis this spring. 

But we’ve also seen some of the common challenges and missteps that arise when schools and nonprofits try to come up with meaningful measures of something as complex and dynamic as students’ networks. Here’s an overview of the top five challenges and opportunities that schools should keep in mind in an effort to measure what matters: 

1. Measure people, not just participation.

If a student is participating in a program, is she necessarily building social capital? Counting participation as a proxy for all sorts of outcomes is a familiar trap in education.

Participation isn’t always a bad metric, it’s just incomplete. As we’ve seen in recent years of abysmal attendance rates, getting students into a school building or afterschool program is a critical first step to ensuring they’re accessing the resources they need. That said, not all environments are created equal. Without understanding the degree to which students are building strong relationships, it’s dangerous to assume that contact amounts to connection.

Take for example Search Institute’s survey of young people in different types of programming—schools, student support programs, and out-of-school time (OST) programs. Despite spending fewer total hours in OST programs, Search found that young people were, in fact, more likely to report strong developmental relationships in those settings than in school.

2. Measure behaviors, not just sentiment.

While measuring engagement alone may lead you astray, asking young people how they feel about the relationships in their school can also prove misleading. The “capital” in social capital is an important dimension to always keep in mind. Just because you know someone and feel positively towards them, are you actively exchanging resources with one another? Are you helping each other get by and get ahead? Those resources are the valuable capital that flows through some, but not all, networks. As Brookings Institution found in a study of neighborhood sentiments and behaviors, positive feelings do not always lead to helping behaviors.

In other words, when you’re asking young people to reflect on their networks within or beyond school, asking about the qualities of their connections beyond just care is critical. 

3. Treat relationships as a two-way street.

One complexity that differentiates relationships from, say, individual reading and math scores or even culture and climate surveys is the fact that relationships are dynamic: they involve at least two people who may or may not see the relationship in the same light. The risk, then, is that if you only ask one party (i.e., a student or educator) how a relationship is faring, you’re not getting the full story.

Search Institute’s breakthrough research offers a stark reminder: adults are significantly more likely to estimate that their relationships with young people are strong, developmental ones than are young people. 

By using instruments like the developmental relationships survey, schools can get smarter about where both young people and adults are and, in particular, what training and support educators might not realize they even need to deepen their connections on campus. 

4. Differentiate relationships by the different value they offer.

Although measuring “strong” relationships is an important exercise in schools, sociology research adds an additional wrinkle to equating strength with quality. Ask people who helped them get where they are today, and oftentimes they will point to deep, caring relationships with family members and mentors who unleashed their potential. But ask those same people how they got their most recent job and you might get a very different response: a friend of a friend, a colleague of a colleague, or a distant alumni connection from their alma mater may have offered them an “in.”

For decades, sociology research has shown that so-called “weak ties,” or those with whom we interact less frequently, can offer real value in our lives. And that, in fact, those people whom we don’t know as well may offer something that deep, enduring relationships can’t: access to new information, supports, and opportunities that our stronger-tie networks lack.

Bearing in mind that weak ties matter, too, means that over-indexing on measures of care or deep connection could lead schools astray. Instead, designing measures based on the types of resources schools are hoping they might lend, or students’ comfort reaching back out to people they may have only met a few times, could help schools identify the degree to which they are diversifying their students’ weak-tie networks, not just padding their strong-tie ones.

5. Use technology to overcome measurement costs. 

Without undergoing a full-stack evaluation of your school or program, it can be daunting to figure out how best to capture data beyond participation, engagement, or sentiment to better understand if and how relationships are forming. Luckily, technology is ushering in an exciting new era to better account for when and how engagement counts. 

Platforms like People Grove, which published a Social Capital Impact report earlier this year, have been able to measure students’ self-reported network utility—i.e., how helpful their connections on the platform have been—relative to engagement. They found that when it comes to seeking out career support, more is better. Other platforms are using technology to ensure that students are engaging not just with any random mentor on the site, but with mentors who share their interests; and have found that this type of engagement increases the likelihood that online connections convert into offline friendships. And platforms like Visible Networks Lab allow young people and the adults supporting them to visualize their networks and observe how those networks shift over time.

These five dynamics make measuring students’ social capital complex; but they also show the immense opportunities to get smarter on who our students know, how those relationships are faring, and how schools might continue to deepen and diversify the relationships at students’ disposal.

Want to learn more? Read our “Missing Metrics” report for examples of emerging measures, and listen to our webinar “Approaches to measuring students’ social capital among schools and nonprofits” hosted by the International Social Capital Association.