In 2020, the Christensen Institute released our first Missing Metrics report, detailing how schools and nonprofits were starting to measure their students’ networks. 

In the three years since, the field has seen significant developments in surveys and other measurement strategies. As the urgency to understand and leverage social capital gains a stronger foothold across education, industry, and research, advances in measurement are taking off on multiple fronts. These measures can help schools navigate the social effects of myriad post-pandemic realities: stark learning gaps, worsening mental health crises, significant enrollment declines, and a cooling job market. Confronted with these challenges, understanding the depth and scope of the relationships and resources that students can depend on is more critical than ever.

New, growing surveys

First, survey instruments designed to measure learners’ and workers’ social networks are expanding.  

Established research institutions are developing new ways of understanding who learners and workers know, and how those relationships are (or aren’t) advancing their career goals. For example, in 2021, the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank, published “How We Rise.” This research analyzes findings from a survey developed by research partner Econometrica to assess individuals’ education, job, and housing networks and how those networks impacted their chances of economic mobility. (Check out the survey methodology here.) Similarly, a research collaboration between Strada, a national social impact organization, and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) evaluated undergraduate students’ engagement in career preparation activities, including surveying students about their participation in various social capital-building opportunities and their confidence tapping into alumni and professional networks. 

Crucially, these data sets enabled researchers to disaggregate data by factors like race and ethnicity, gender, and parental education level, revealing the otherwise hidden social side of opportunity gaps. 

For example, Brookings discovered that across the four cities they studied, race was the leading predictor of the size and strength of individuals’ job, education, and housing networks, with Black men reporting the smallest, weakest networks. NSSE and Strada data revealed that across the 55,000 college students surveyed, first-generation students are less likely than continuing-generation students to take part in career-building activities, especially those related to building social capital within their fields of interest, including networking with alumni or other professionals; interviewing or shadowing someone in their career of interest; and discussing career interests with faculty. Data like these form a critical bedrock for policies and practices aimed at deepening and expanding social networks in more equitable ways.

At the same time, new, validated survey instruments have emerged for schools and nonprofits to initiate their own data collection. For example, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Search Institute, a nonprofit research organization focused on youth development, created a free assessment called the Social Capital Assessment + Learning for Equity (SCALE) Measures. Search Institute also published an accompanying user guide and technical manual to assist organizations in evaluating and building young people’s support networks. During this time, learning measurement platforms, such as Hello Insight, have also begun integrating social capital and peer network measurements within their SEL (social-emotional learning) assessments. A number of direct services organizations expanded upon their efforts to survey their students’ access to and ability to mobilize networks as well. An updated overview of sample survey items from the field is available here.

Student-facing tools and data

More and better surveys fill a clear need among institutions and research partners trying to understand their students’ access to and ability to mobilize social capital, and particularly how to democratize access to social networks more equitably across their student population. 

But surveys can often lean institution-centric, rather than student-centric. Other data collection strategies are also emerging to place social network data back into the hands of students. For example, Social Capital Builders, a social enterprise which provides training and curriculum to youth-serving organizations, has developed a framework for young people to understand, evaluate, and improve their relationships over time. Through a series of diagnostics, students rate their relationships on five dimensions: Compassion, Assistance, Reciprocity, Trust, and Information (CARTI). This self-assessment is embedded throughout the Social Capital Builders Foundations in Social Capital Literacy curriculum, which teaches students to reach out to various connections in their networks to help them accomplish education and career goals. 

Another organization, Basta, which works to combat underemployment among first-generation college graduates, has developed an online career diagnostic and navigation tool called Seekr. The diagnostic includes questions about students’ access to and confidence in building social capital, adapted from Search Institute’s SCALE survey described above. By taking the diagnostic, students can see where they are in their career journey and the sorts of activities and networks they may need to seek out to get closer to landing a job. 

Technology-enabled data & research

As an online tool, Basta’s diagnostic collects data across the organization’s school and nonprofit partners, in turn allowing its team to analyze trends across a broad, diverse sample of students. Basta published its first synthesis of data last year on a new Career Insights dashboard, revealing various patterns across the sample. For example, students who reported getting first interviews were 2x more likely to have done some networking.

That’s one of a growing number of examples where technology is providing new capabilities to scale, as well as measure, students’ social networks to expand opportunities. For example, networking platforms for college students like PeopleGrove and Handshake provide more students the chance to learn about new career pathways, speak with potential employers, and gain invaluable mentorship in ways that were previously inaccessible. Given that these interactions often occur online, companies can mine data to spot patterns in students’ interest in and capacity to build and broker professional networks. 

Encouragingly, organizations like PeopleGrove and Handshake not only provide their higher education partners with more nuanced networking data than most universities collect on their own, they’ve also begun to share what they’re learning more broadly. For example, Handshake releases monthly “Network Trends” reports, along with research on Gen Z’s job-hunting preferences and network behaviors. PeopleGrove released its first ever “Social Capital Impact Report” based on surveys of students and alumni using the platform.

Finally, technology platforms are also unlocking access to large-scale data sets that researchers can study to better understand how social capital shapes economic opportunity. For example, a research collaboration between Harvard’s Opportunity Insights organization, directed by economic mobility researcher Raj Chetty, and Meta led to the creation of the Social Capital Atlas, an open-access tool to “explore social capital in your community” and its connection to economic mobility through a data visualization interface. In building and analyzing the data, researchers identified that “economic connectedness”—as measured by cross-class connections on Facebook—was a leading predictor of economic mobility. In another recent study, LinkedIn partnered with researchers from MIT to analyze which connections on the platform were most helpful to jobseekers, surfacing (and confirming) the fact that moderately weak ties—that is, jobseekers’ loose acquaintanceship networks—appear most helpful in gaining access to new jobs. 

Studies like these can deepen the field’s understanding of the fundamental structure and power of our social networks by leveraging the sheer scale of social media—analyzing de-identified information on 21 billion Facebook friendships and 20 million LinkedIn users respectively—to better understand how different social networks impact opportunity. 

Advances like these over the past few years mark important strides toward measuring students’ networks in more equitable, meaningful, and actionable ways. Social capital is a potent but often hidden asset in the opportunity equation. With ever-increasing momentum and technical capabilities, social network metrics will only continue to evolve and gain traction, revealing the relationships and resources that are shaping students’ access to opportunity.

For more on measuring students’ networks, check out our report, The missing metrics: Emerging practices for measuring students’ relationships and networks.