Think about the last time you visited a new classroom. Perhaps you were there to check in on a friend or to pick up your child. Perhaps you were observing an exciting new pedagogical approach. Whatever your express purpose, try to recall the social dynamics you observed beyond just the lesson being taught. Were students working alone or in groups? Were there adults beyond teachers and faculty in the room? Who talked to you? Who talked to one another? 

Across classrooms and campuses, teaching and learning may be the core activity observable to the naked eye. But underneath the surface, a different, exceedingly valuable activity is also afoot: connecting. A core premise of the Institute’s research on innovative approaches to building students’ networks is that all institutions are already brokers of social capital. But—to borrow a phrase from Harvard sociologist Mario Luis Small—today, some institutions are “purposeful” brokers while many others are “non-purposeful” brokers. 

Applying this lens to the education and youth services space, many schools and organizations inadvertently function as non-purposeful brokers. Each person a student encounters in these programs is seen as a means not an end. They may oversee lessons, teach a skill, or offer advice. But whether these relationships themselves are positive, diverse, strong, or outlast the program itself is usually left to chance. Put differently, in these programs, relationships tend to be relegated to inputs rather than outcomes worthy of investment in their own right. 

Shifting to being purposeful brokers of students’ social capital, however, can pay significant long term dividends. Relationships are critical assets to helping young people get by and get ahead. Half of all jobs come through personal connections and access to warm relationships is a key predictor of longevity and happiness. Luckily for young people, a growing number of organizations are flipping the script and pursuing approaches that elevate relationships as a critical outcome in their models. Based on our recent research, here are four lessons in purposeful design emerging from those innovative approaches:

1. Connect webs of support to give students someone to turn toat every turn

A caring relationship is a critical asset. But research consistently shows that a web, rather than a single caring connection, is even better. By deliberately forming a web of relationships around students, programs can put reliable, connected, diverse assets at their students’ disposal. Take, for example, Gap Inc.’s This Way Ahead model. Founded in 2007, the model seeks to place 16-24-year-olds facing barriers to employment in engaging first jobs that will serve as foundations for successful careers. Young people engaged in This Way Ahead have access to a job coach at a local nonprofit, a “big sib” who serves as a near-peer mentor, and a store leader who serves not just as a supervisor, but also a mentor. Each of these connections serves a different purpose. Particularly powerful is the connective tissue that the program has put in place among these three resources: job coaches check in with store leaders and store leaders check in with big sibs to ensure that young people are succeeding. These interconnected relationships appear to be driving both shorter and longer-term job success. On average, This Way Ahead alumni stay at the company twice as long as their peers, often sticking with the same manager and developing a strong network within their store. And a new Gap Inc. survey of This Way Ahead alumni (2007–2016 participants) found promising long-term outcomes as well: 72% go on to secure stable employment compared with 55% of their peers not participating in the program.

2. Leverage high-tech to scale high-touch connections

You can hardly talk about connections in 2019 without acknowledging the role that technology plays. In a recent survey we conducted of nearly 100 programs that prioritize relationships in their models, the vast majority reported connecting students to relationships both face-to-face and online, and deploying a host of technology tools to do so. Although some critics may worry that screens spell the demise of connections, programs are finding that supportive connections don’t have to be reserved for face-to-face. For example, the nonprofit college coaching app Beyond 12 has built a model its founder dubs “high-tech, high-touch.” College students access virtual connections with near peers who offer critical inspiration and support. That support is bucking troubling rates of attrition among first-gen, low-income students. Eighty-five percent of students Beyond12 has coached for 6 years have either graduated or are still enrolled—which is double the national average for similar students. Models like Beyond12 that leverage tech to connect suggest that for programs investing in technology tools, a virtual or blended connection need not mean a hollow one. Tech-based solutions can, in fact, multiply, rather than deteriorate, the relationships at students’ disposal.

3. Treat student and alumni networks as the fuelnot just the costof your program

Traditional business models tend to treat students as costs of running the program—for each additional student, the program incurs staff and administrative costs to serve that student. But some models are unlocking the latent value contained in networks of students. Take COOP, a New York and Bay Area-based nonprofit that helps underemployed low-income, first-generation college graduates break into tech jobs. COOP alumni serve as the “fuel” of the program, playing a range of both formal and informal roles that contribute to the program’s sustainability. “The only reason we’re combining incredibly high-touch support with lower costs is that alumni do everything for each other,” COOP’s founder Kalani Leifer said. Although many alums do this to “pay it forward”, COOP also strives to continue to create value for its alums. Alums stand to benefit from referral bonuses for bringing COOP graduates into their companies, managerial training by serving as near-peer mentors (dubbed Captains) within the COOP program, or simply by having access to socializing and free drinks at COOP community events. The strategy is paying off: 81% of COOP grads end up working full-time jobs with benefits, earning more than triple their pre-COOP average.

4. Leverage real-world learning to scale diverse real-world relationships

Programs opening up real-world learning opportunities often herald the real-world skills acquired in the course of job shadows, internships, and apprenticeships. But these real-world experiences can be deliberately designed to deepen and diversify students’ networks into industry as well. And although a number of work-based learning approaches focus on cultivating a single, high-touch industry mentor, an array of weak ties can also offer promising inroads to opportunity when students hit the job market. These weak ties don’t mean hollow relationships. For example, Da Vinci Extension (DVX) a hybrid college in Hawthorne, Calif. offers students 6-8 week work-based learning experiences to gain an array of experiences with local employers. DVX works to ensure that even in that brief period, authentic relationship-building is integrated into the core of the project. For example, “Clients” and students typically kick off their consultancy with a brainstorm session. At face value, the goal of this session is to make sure that students and Clients collaboratively refine, or even in some cases, redefine what they need out of the project. But the brainstorm is also a forum to build engagement and connection: by allowing students to engage in co-crafting a strategy with Clients on the front end, they can feel project ownership and can start forming a relationship grounded in mutuality and an authentic understanding of each other’s perspectives. By optimizing connections around short-term projects rather than longer-term internships, DVX has seen unprecedented scale in the partnerships it could broker on students’ behalf. Although historically it could rely on only 3-5 local companies to provide robust, high-quality internships, it’s currently partnering with over 20 local companies on project consults.

Sometimes new, innovative designs require massive resource investments to even get started. But all school and youth-serving programs already have a number of relationship resources in place, like teachers and faculty, community members, mentors and industry experts, and peers and near-peers. The question for many programs is whether they are leveraging those relationship assets to optimize for social capital gains. Designing with that express purpose can transform programs into vibrant hubs where students deepen and diversify their networks.