Anna Arsenault, research project manager for education, co-authored this piece.

As COVID wears on, “relationships matter” can feel like a tired cliche. But holding tight to students’ relationships as a core asset in the opportunity equation should be a strategic priority for any education system committed to fostering more equitable outcomes.

Research has shown that as the number of supportive relationships across different parts of young peoples’ lives increases, so too does their academic motivation, social-emotional growth, and personal responsibility. Social connections also function as valuable career currency: for example, over half of students have secured internships through informal networks such as professors, families, and friends. 

Yet students’ access to networks is, on average, unequal when stratified by factors like race, income, and gender. 

As we’ve researched this topic—both before and during the pandemic—we’ve identified promising innovations starting to make headway in addressing these network gaps. We’ve detailed a number of emerging approaches in our playbook, “5 steps for building and strengthening students’ networks.” 

But while early innovators are making progress, and research continues to highlight the critical role that social networks play in the opportunity equation, there are also areas where research on how to effectively and equitably build students’ networks is lagging. These gaps in research merit greater attention to mitigate the risk of perpetuating opportunity gaps.

Building a learning agenda: Identifying the most pressing gaps in social capital research

As gaps in social capital research became more apparent in our own work, our team at the Christensen Institute set out to document and categorize them. Through conversations with leading innovators—in addition to hundreds of practitioners, entrepreneurs, and funders—we developed and refined a list of frequently asked questions we’d heard over the past few years. That resulted in what we’re dubbing a field-level social capital learning agenda composed of 30 research questions. 

Then, in an effort to validate that what we were hearing resonated with a broader set of players in the field, we hosted roundtables with 40 systems leaders across K–12, postsecondary, and workforce development to discuss if and how those questions related to their own strategies and the students they serve. Participants ranked how much each question connected to an acute challenge facing their students or staff, and/or had the potential to directly inform their strategy and practice moving forward.

What were the highest priority research questions? Here’s a breakdown:

Top 5 Questions Overall (ranked in priority by practitioners):

1. What are effective approaches to empowering Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color (BIPOC) students and the systems that serve them to identify social capital assets in their identities and communities?

2. What cultural competencies do adults and students need in order to build trusting relationships, grounded in reciprocity, and across lines of difference? 

3. What systems conditions make these practices most feasible to implement successfully?

4. What are promising approaches to strengthening near-peer networks?

5. What career exploration or exposure models make it likely to build, maintain, and mobilize industry connections in work-based learning environments?

Although these five questions rose to the top, K–12, postsecondary, and workforce development leaders expressed fairly different opinions about the questions facing their industries. To dive deeper and see how research priorities differed by sector, check out this complete overview of our Social Capital Learning Agenda Findings.

In addition to consulting with practitioners, we also hosted a roundtable with 11 researchers who study students’ social capital and relationships. During that discussion, we shared the same list of 30  frequently asked questions and asked researchers to identify those questions for which there is currently robust data to draw on and those questions for which there is limited or insufficient data to study what works and what doesn’t. 

Cross-referencing researchers’ responses with practitioners’ priorities offered two distinct opportunities: First, we could identify questions where there is little evidence but high interest among practitioners (which we’re dubbing “high-need research opportunities”). Second, researchers’ responses helped us to identify a few questions where there is robust evidence as well as high interest or need among practitioners (which we’re dubbing “low-hanging fruit”). Below are the top questions in each bucket as ranked in priority:

High-Need Research Opportunities:

1. What are effective approaches to empowering BIPOC students and the systems that serve them to identify social capital assets in their identities and communities?

2. What systems conditions make these practices most feasible to implement successfully? 

3. What are promising approaches to strengthening near-peer networks?

Low-hanging Fruit Research Opportunities:

1. How might data reveal the specific types of support and resources, including perceived support, gained through different relationships?

2. What relationship-mapping activities can inspire and empower students to reflect on and mobilize a variety of existing assets to support their goals?

3. What cultural competencies do adults and students need in order to build trusting relationships, grounded in reciprocity, and across lines of difference?

A number of these research questions are shaping the Institute’s next wave of research. At the same time, we’re disseminating it more broadly in hopes of influencing more research and philanthropic investment over the coming years. As awareness of the role that social capital plays in the opportunity equation grows, we hope that answers to these questions will translate into more schools and programs knowing when and how to effectively build their students’ networks.

Putting learning into action: Answering high-priority questions through both research and practice

Although robust research funding is not always easy to come by in education, there are a variety of steps that players across the field can take to advance collective understanding of social capital:

  • If you’re a practitioner operating in K–12, postsecondary, or higher education and… 
    • You’re exploring social-capital building: Consider existing survey instruments or research-practice partnerships to learn as you go.
    • You’re already implementing promising practices: Explore data collection strategies that could build out further evidence of impact.
  • If you’re a researcher…
    • Consider how your current research may be addressing some of these questions… If you have answers, reflect on how you might better translate those answers to the growing field of schools and organizations aiming to foster students’ social capital. (We can help with that!)
    • Consider how existing data sets you’re building or have worked on could offer insights into these questions.
    • Consider developing measurement instruments that could help more practitioners answer these questions.
    • Consider research-practice partnerships with early innovators geared towards answering these questions in practical ways.
  • If you’re an edtech company creating solutions that build students’ networks…
    • Consider sharing de-identified data with researchers to engage in research-practice partnerships to tackle high-priority questions, leveraging data collected on your platform.
    • Consider piloting new measures that fill in gaps in the field’s understanding, particularly around identifying and activating existing relationships in students lives

We’re excited to pursue research that begins to bridge the gaps in knowledge and practice currently holding the field back. At the same time, we’re eager to help other researchers and practitioners generate answers to these questions as well. If you are interested in pursuing topics that surfaced in this learning agenda process and would like a thought partner, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at and


  • Julia Freeland Fisher
    Julia Freeland Fisher

    Julia Freeland Fisher leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of Disruptive Innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres through its research.