The American educational system is one of the most unequal in the industrialized world. Gaps in academic outcomes measured by the NAEP, PISA, and TIMSS between the top and bottom quartiles of students have remained large and remarkably constant for nearly half a century. These gaps in academic achievement need to be addressed. But they are only part of the story. 

To fuel student success equitably, particularly in the coming year, schools and postsecondary institutions must address students’ unequal access to resources that drive academic and economic success. One of those critical resources is students’ networks. Depending on their background, students report vastly different webs of relationships at their disposal. Despite their indisputable value in the student success equation and broad agreement in the education field that “relationships matter,” there’s scarce attention paid to actually measuring students’ relationships and the value of the networks they form over time. 

How relationships influence student success

Relationships and networks are essential for getting by and getting ahead. Who students know is inextricably linked to what students know. In one study of elementary students, students’ social capital—their access to, and ability to mobilize, relationships that help them further their potential and their goals—was found to have a greater impact on their math and literacy skills than instructional resources. Relationships impact students’ grades and persistence through high school and college and are an essential source of ongoing care, support, and encouragement. 

Social capital research also reveals that relationships can offer lasting value that students can rely on long after they graduate. For example, an estimated 50% of jobs come through personal connections. Long term, a broad and diverse reservoir of positive relationships positions young people to access continued support and maximize career optionality and economic success. 

We can’t improve what we don’t measure

Building students’ social capital is an equity imperative for any system committed to closing the opportunity gap. All too often, however, this critical resource in the opportunity equation repeatedly goes unmeasured, leaving students’ access to networks to chance. In the absence of measurement, relationship assets may go undetected and gaps undiagnosed. By intentionally measuring students’ social capital, education systems stand to positively influence students’ academic, social, and economic success. 

In our new paper, The Missing Metrics: Emerging practices for measuring students’ relationships and networks, we propose a four-dimensional framework for measuring students’ social capital, based on empirical research as well as practices of early innovators across K–12, postsecondary, and workforce development. Three of the dimensions serve as a lens to measure students’ access to relationships: the quantity of relationships in students’ networks, the quality of relationships in students’ networks, and the structure of students’ networks. The fourth dimension serves as a lens to measure the mindsets and skills students need to activate relationships: students’ ability to mobilize networks. The framework is meant to help schools and systems start to gather information and measure their efforts to equitably build students’ relationships and networks as gateways to opportunity.

Over the last few years, a host of early innovators have started to build an evidence base for the instrumental role that students’ relationships—alongside individual effort and ability—play in the student success equation. Because relationships are complex, these programs measure across multiple dimensions to better understand the depth and breadth of relationships between students and staff and also to ensure students expand their networks in the course of their learning. For example, ASU Local, a hybrid online learning and work-based learning degree program, offers students high-touch support with both academic and career coaches. Students are asked to rate their student-coach relationship quality through statements such as, “I feel supported by…the coaches” and “I feel like the…coaches have created a comfortable and safe environment” to ensure that the coaches are meeting students’ relational, developmental, and instrumental needs—three indicators of high-quality relationships. Students’ mindsets and ability to cultivate social capital is also tracked through student responses to statements such as, “I am confident in work environments” and “I consider my new connections members of my professional network.

Technology is also leveraged by some innovators to diversity and expand students’ professional networks. For instance, Big Picture Learning, a nonprofit that supports a network of high schools that offer internship-based learning, uses a technology tool called ImBlaze to pose questions to students and their internship site mentors on a daily or weekly basis. Some partner schools use the app to ask mentors about the extent to which they open up their networks to the students they work with. One school asks mentors, “Did you introduce your young person to someone in your professional network today?” Others ask similar questions to students such as, “Did your mentor connect you with someone in their professional network today? to ensure student responses are aligned with the adults and that students have awareness and agency in maintaining these relationships over time.

Building students’ social capital through practical measurement

In the long run, better data and measurement can drive better design. Kate Schrauth, executive director of iCouldBe, a virtual mentoring program connecting high school students to online mentors, cautions, “Without the data—and the tools to collect and analyze the data—how can we measure the impact of expanded networks for our students?” The innovative programs we point to in The Missing Metrics harness the power of practical measurement to capture data and learn which relationships are working for young people, and iterate on curriculum and student experiences to ensure all are equitably connected. With the right tools and investments, more schools and programs can follow suit. Schools and institutions ready to prioritize students’ social capital will benefit from incorporating measurement early on to first identify relationships students already have within reach. From there, practical measures can drive program improvement, by informing data-driven, personalized strategies for increasing student access to relationships and networks that will open doors to economic prosperity.

Measuring relationships as assets in the student success equation is crucial to ensuring that students don’t just graduate with skills and knowledge, but with a network that can help put those skills into action. Although nascent, early efforts by pioneering schools and education programs show evidence of closing the opportunity gap for youth and adults alike by measuring along multiple dimensions. By investing in and measuring the social resources at students’ disposal, schools can start to produce breakthrough K–12 and postsecondary outcomes for all students, not just some. The very results that half a century of reform efforts have struggled to produce.


  • Mahnaz Charania
    Mahnaz Charania