The limitations of networks to expand opportunity

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Nov 8, 2018

Lately I’ve been writing a lot about networks. Students’ access to new networks is the topic of a book my husband and I published this summer called Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students’ Networks.

We wrote the book because we saw relationships as a critical—and too often underestimated —asset in the opportunity equation that education systems need to start innovating around if they have any hope of remaining society’s great equalizer.

But that is not to say that networks alone are a cure-all to the complex landscape of opportunity in America. At best that interpretation would be simplistic and inaccurate. At worst it’s an insidious way to avoid confronting structural impediments to improving educational outcomes and shoring up ladders for social mobility. That’s because core as it may be to getting by and getting ahead, social capital—who you know—is not the only asset that matters. Financial capital—what you own and can buy—and human capital—what you know and can do—matter too. All three forms of capital are crucial ingredients to opportunity. 

Financial capital to buffer risk

Take, for example, America’s Promise Alliance’s findings in their 2015 Don’t Quit on Me report. The authors found that: “Compared to young people who graduated on time, young people who left school without graduating were twice as likely to report that they reached out to ‘no one’ for help and half as likely to have reached out to a teacher for help.” The authors found that a web of support from parents, adults in school and friends could buffer against adversity. In other words, a network of caring adults is a powerful force to keep students in school.

But the researchers found something else as well: for young people reporting five or more adverse life experiences—experiences such as being homeless or facing major mental health issues—social support alone did not curb dropping out. Students facing these challenges needed other supports that actually tackled root causes of adversity such as providing housing or healthcare. In other words, actual financial resources—not just a caring relationship—were necessary to addressing these challenges.

Financial resources may mean one-off subsidies but they may also be part of broader public infrastructure supporting social safety nets. Mentorship and networks are necessary but not sufficient threads to weave that net. One of the best articulations of a worrisome tendency to try to use relationships as a shortcut to public investment is a brief essay by Jean Rhodes, Director of the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Rhodes notes that by the late 1980s “mentoring was seen as a relatively cost efficient way to address the needs of the growing ranks of youth who were being thrust into poverty while minimizing tax-intensive government expenditures on public education, health, housing and safety nets. Consistent with the times, the public embraced formulations and solutions that highlighted individual frailty and redemption over structural impediments and change.” Today, mentoring programs offer critical opportunities to offer more caring and diverse connections in young people’s lives. But they should be approached with caution if and when they are being used as a hollow substitute for gaps in social services.

Human capital to expand opportunity

Besides being a poor stand-in for financial capital in certain circumstances, networks alone are also hardly the sole ingredient to succeeding in the labor market. Make no mistake: who you know absolutely matters when it comes to getting a job. An estimated 50 percent of jobs come through personal connections—with some estimates placing that number as high as 80 percent. But a lesser talked about finding reflects the interaction of social capital with human capital: returns on networks, particularly weak ties, appear to increase with education level.

There is other evidence that social capital alone is unlikely to yield labor market mobility. As U.C. Berkeley’s Sandra Smith has written, the working poor do use social ties to find jobs but largely for lateral rather than upward mobility in the job market. Put differently, individuals with fixed human capital assets can’t simply network their way out of poverty. Based on findings like these, we should be especially excited about innovations in secondary and postsecondary models that tightly pair investments in students’ human and social capital at once—rather than thinking one can function without the other.

Beyond silver bullets

As I’ve endeavored to write about the topic of social capital, I’ve struggled with the fact that the edu-opinion market will bear all sorts of headlines and books selling quick-fix solutions. But acknowledging the enduring power of networks should not be a bandwagon, cure all, or silver bullet.

Relationships are critical to thriving personally and professionally. MIT Professor and Ford Foundation Vice President Xavier de Souza Briggs aptly describes: “Individuals of all backgrounds need a two-sided treasure chest of social capital: access to social support that helps us cope with life’s stresses and challenges (‘get by’) and access to social leverage, the key to mobility or ‘getting ahead.’” In other words, people—especially young people—need relationships that provide critical care, supports and encouragement. They also need relationships that can connect them to new opportunities—like jobs, ideas and learning experiences—that are otherwise beyond their reach. But their treasure chest must also contain other forms of capital—namely financial and human capital—that can likewise buffer risk and expand opportunity. And for anyone aiming to address opportunity gaps, innovations that nurture all three forms of capital will deliver the best results.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.