The data is clear: students want networks. When asked what skill they most regret not cultivating in college, nearly half of recent graduates cited networking, according to a 2020 Strada-Gallup College Alumni poll.

The data is also clear that access to networks is not equally distributed: first-generation students and students of colour are much less likely than their peers to participate in networking with alumni or to talk to faculty about their career interests. Those gaps are a troubling harbinger of unequal labour market outcomes, given an estimated half of internships and jobs come through personal connections.

The unfortunate and unfair reality is that the enormous role of networks remains at the heart of a hidden curriculum that helps certain graduates convert hard-earned degrees into careers.

But there are ways to demystify network-building and make access to social capital a more explicit and equitable feature of students’ college experience. Here are three actions that would bring that hidden curriculum into the light for all students on campus:

1. Teach networking as a skill as part of your career services

While career services offices may offer everything from career fairs to alumni directories for students to expand their professional networks, far fewer have the resources to teach students how to network. That’s a missed opportunity: on a long list of career-related skills, networking is where college seniors report feeling least confident, by a wide margin. That lack of confidence can hamper the best efforts of career offices – if students don’t know how to ask faculty for help, approach prospective employers at a job fair, or lean on one another for support, simply brokering access to employers or alumni will not yield results.

If colleges are building their own training, they should consider evidence-based approaches, such as Connected Futures, a free training resource developed by experts in clinical and developmental psychology to help enhance networking skills. It offers students a set of brief, asynchronous modules to build their understanding of networks, with prompts to reflect on and practise building their networks offline.

There is also an emerging market of courses and learning. For example, social enterprise Social Capital Builders teaches network building as a literacy, akin to financial literacy. Its approach is deeply asset-based, offering lessons aimed at helping students tap into their existing networks and identify “gateway connections,” or second-degree connections, who might help them accomplish their goals. Another curriculum provider, Career Launch, partners with two- and four-year colleges to offer a mix of short, text-message based “micro-learning videos,” an interactive workbook, and group coaching sessions geared toward boosting students’ ability to successfully engage in “cold outreach” with professionals in their fields of interest.

2. To center equity, make network-building credit-bearing

As helpful as skill-building curricula could be for students, making networking lessons an opt-in activity has a downside: some students don’t have time to engage in non-credit bearing activities. When studying if and how students formed networks on campus, researcher Joseph Ferrare found that a subset of students suffered from what he called “the social alienation of financial constraint.” In other words, lack of resources meant that some students from low-income households couldn’t afford to live on campus, were working full-time, and didn’t have bandwidth between jobs and commuting to participate in programmes that would help them build their networking know-how and know-who.

Making network-building credit-bearing would ensure that students furthest from opportunity are taught this hidden curriculum. For example, universities can encourage faculty to build assignments that prompt students to connect with industry, seeking feedback on project work or conducting informational interviews on topics they’re studying. Faculty can act as brokers by integrating outside guest speakers such as alumni or individuals from professors’ own professional networks into their coursework. That integration can be fairly low-lift for professors and guest speakers alike if talks are hosted over Zoom. Faculty could also use proprietary tools such as Riipen, which links up employers, educators and students to collaborate on projects that faculty can embed directly into their syllabi.

Universities should consider offering access to more paid work-integrated learning experiences for students. This could be through their own commercial partners and networks or using tools such as Parker Dewey, a marketplace where students can apply for short, paid micro-internships with employers.

Universities taking a deeper approach could add new coursework, building for-credit career preparation courses, specifically geared towards first-generation students. The non-profit organisation, Braven, partners with colleges to offer a three-credit elective course that includes strength-based coaching on crafting resumés, building professional networks, and securing internships. 

3. To boost return on investment, elevate social capital in your campus-wide strategy

In studying how universities and their partners expand students’ networks, we’ve observed that some of the boldest work has emerged from college presidents who are laser-focused on improving students’ career outcomes. In an outcomes-based post-secondary world, networks that open doors to career options and opportunities really matter.

For example, as part of its campus-wide “Integrative Learning and Life Design” model, Johns Hopkins University sought to engage all students, particularly those from low-income households, the first in their family to attend college, and students of colour, in immersive experiences throughout their time on campus. In addition to radically expanding access to internships and study abroad, the initiative focuses on relationships. These experiences outside the classroom help students graduate with a diverse network across industries.

Students are assigned mentors who are tasked with encouraging mentees to try courses and work experiences they might deem too risky because they are not directly tied to their major, don’t pay well, or are not popular among their peers. It’s paying off: student satisfaction with career services at Johns Hopkins has nearly doubled. And six months after graduation, first-generation college graduates are now employed or enrolled in graduate school at the same rate as their peers, according to the institution’s First-Destination survey.

Extra credit: measure your results

Across all these efforts, measuring progress is key. That means paying closer attention to the quantity, quality and structure of students’ networks, as well as whether they’re increasing their ability to mobilise those networks. While few colleges currently track student network data per se, there may be indicators, such as how connected students feel to one another or to faculty, in the data you’re already collecting on student satisfaction and belonging, and alumni surveys. If you’re looking for other ways to gauge progress, check out this collection of sample survey items designed to measure students’ networks and social capital, compiled by the Christensen Institute.

Most colleges aren’t shy about marketing themselves as hubs of connection. But if colleges care about equity and access, there’s a deeper task in front of them: taking the chance out of chance encounters and ensuring that students graduate with networks, not just credentials, in hand.

This post originally appeared in Times Higher Education.


  • 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.